“Doinel, if your paper is first today, it's because I've decided to give the results beginning with the worst.”
Another of Criterion's classic back-catalogue finds its way to Blu-ray with Francois Truffaut's lauded quasi-autobiographical The 400 Blows from 1959. Marking his transition from film-critic to filmmaker, the esteemed auteur dredged through elements of his own troubled upbringing and re-interpreted them in the pioneering spirit of the French New Wave to create a film that is visually and thematically stunning. At first glance, and especially when looked at from today's standpoint, having had so many familial and personal dramas over the years since the release of The 400 Blows (aka Les quatre cents coups), from Kes to Scum and even, perhaps, American History X, the tale is hardly revelatory. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that it would be some hard-hitting depiction of oppression, misunderstanding and hard-line persecution. But even if the film does encompass such societal ills as youth crime, vagrancy, bad parenting and a disciplinarian state of sanctioned bullying from the authorities, Truffaut's first full feature is often painted with a beautifully light touch that stubbornly refuses to be depressing or disturbing no matter how grim things may appear to become. And this is thanks to many things, of course - the script from Truffaut (from his own story) and Marcel Moussy; Truffaut's own distinctive and unflinching direction and the simply ravishing photography from Henri Decae; but, most of all, from the mesmerising central performance from Jean-Pierre Leaud.
Set in Paris of the early fifties, the story tells of twelve year old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and the trials and tribulations that he faces simply growing up in an environment that holds no inspiration or love for him. Overlooked, trivialised or openly berated by a mother going through something akin to a mid-life crisis and shown only token superficial affection from his stepfather, Antoine's only release from squalid boredom and crushed dreams is to play up like the Devil at school. Indeed, the title of “The 400 Blows” literally comes from the French idiom faire les quatre cents coups, meaning “to raise hell”. But Antoine is no mindless hooligan and his tricks are slight and only borderline mischievous. However, they are enough to garner the festering hatred of his teacher, the playfully nicknamed “Sourpuss” (played by Guy Decomble), whose arrogance and semi-psychotic temper have become a daily ritual of abuse for the kids, but mainly for Antoine, who just can't seem to remain out of trouble for long. Once it gets too much for him, he begins to duck out of school and, as the young and rebellious Truffaut, himself, had done in his own formative years, he spends his time either larking about the streets or, more often, wiling away the hours in the local cinema. During one of his illicit sojourns he happens to catch his mother in the arms of her lover, although, to his increasingly aloof mind, this barely matters to him at all. It matters to her though and her sudden change in behaviour towards him in an effort to persuade him to keep his mouth shut kick-starts a chain of events that will eventually lead to him running away from home, committing petty crimes and getting absorbed into the rigid juvenile justice system. The world around him turns, but poor Antoine has unwittingly chosen a different path. Although he doesn't mean to, he can't stop butting heads with those who seek to control him. But, at the end of the day, only he can decide his future.
The film is packed with incident, yet feels sublimely paced and leisurely. Truffaut embraces both the era and the setting with a wonderful eye for detail. The mundanity of home-life - rifling his parents' pockets, putting out the garbage and eavesdropping on domestic arguments - and the arch pantomime that is the antiquated education he receives from molten-blooded buffoons at the school are smoothly drawn entries in the movie's visual diary. Comedy isn't high on the director's agenda, but there are still plenty of amusing moments. Antoine's quick-thinking excuse for not attending school the day before - his mother died (!) - elicits a deliciously shocked response from his arch-enemy that can't help but make you chuckle, as does his Wax Museum-style disguise during a so-bizarre-it-must-be-true robbery. It is this slightly breezy and episodic nature that keeps you rivetted and entertained without Truffaut ever feeling the need to bash you over the head with clever ideas or learned observations. The atmosphere of the Parisian way, not at all the picturesque Hollywood depiction or even the prevailing French one from the forties and most of the fifties, is wonderfully evocative, despite being documentary in tone. The New Wave would capture life as it was and not how other filmmakers would like it to appear. Unfanciful, but shedding the austerity of other contemporary dramas, The 400 Blows is a chronicle of an era on the brink of a cultural revolution, and of a place whose inhabitants simply do not seem to know where they are going. If his parents have no direction and his teachers no hope or charity, then what chance does Antoine stand of succeeding?
“Now, Doinel, go get some water and erase those insanities, or I'll make you lick the wall, my friend.”
Bolstered with terrific performances all round, Claire Maurier is outstanding as Antoine's self-serving mother, it is definitely and, indeed, defiantly Leaud's show. The son of acclaimed French actress Jacqueline Pierreux, Leaud has a maturity that is way beyond his years. Already slightly older than the character he is playing, he exudes an external worldliness and redoubtable nature that is utterly convincing for a lad who learns to fend for himself. Yet it is the inner workings that he conveys that makes his performance so powerful. With a face that, at times, reminds me of a younger Jonathan Scott-Taylor, as seen portraying the teenage Anti-Christ in Damien: Omen II, Leaud has a sure-fire charisma and a very affecting look of hangdog long-sufferance. On the odd occasion when we see tears, it is with massive, self-disciplined restraint and where any other young actor of the era would have worked hard to produce such emotions for themselves and, by extension, us too, he keeps things at a very low-key level of authentic, in-the-moment characterisation that just seems to come so naturally to him. When we see him walking the streets, brushing shoulders with a skirt-chaser who wants him out of the way, or sitting in the cop-shop cell amongst prostitutes and other ne'er-do-wells, he doesn't look out of place. Yet he is still a kid. So how does Leaud do it? We obviously feel for him and his predicament, but we never once feel frightened for his well-being because he has that beguiling maturity in his arsenal and a sort of "quiet" defiance that renders him somehow invulnerable to the knocks and scrapes he gets into. Antoine becomes an anti-hero in his own right and, because of the unforgettable fleshing-out of the character, Leaud became a poster-boy for the New Wave as indelibly as Truffaut became one of its figure-heads. There are moments of insecurity but they are fleeting. Antoine may not have a plan in his head - other than the plot-important desire to see the sea - but he is a coper and a doer. Instinctive and reactionary, his “guard-down” instances of being caught by the night-watchman at his stepfather's office or pounced on by the ever-devious Sourpuss are almost enjoyable to see as they show someone who will be, in adult life we can be certain, as quick-witted and evasive as James Bond. Antoine, Truffaut is saying, will not go on to become a criminal as the authorities no doubt believe, but rather a very, very assured man of means who is independent, strong-willed and thoroughly in-charge of his own destiny. In actual fact, he needs these setbacks and experiences to inspire him - he just can't see it yet.
Of course, Truffaut is describing himself or, at least, a version of himself, and it is hard not to see a sense of pride in the depiction of a young tearaway that we know will go on to confound his critics. Leaud would actually get to play Antoine another four more times for Truffaut, depicting the life and loves of the character first introduced here. But it is actually worth noting that Truffaut's meandering, half-autobiographical creation of the young rebel becomes all-too fictional in the later entries and that this original instalment is, without doubt, the best and most memorable one.
The road to Antoine's rebellion is haphazardly strewn with fortunes both good and ill. Only towards the end, when interviewed by an unseen social worker, do we discover the things that have been eroding his sense of belonging. Even here, though, Truffaut is determined that the boy's drift from society should be seen as a sort of positive, almost enviable thing, rather than something to weep over. Antoine is made of much tougher stuff than he may, ultimately, give himself credit for. His ability to accept and even overcome the situations that he finds himself in is a tonic and, because we know that he is not a bad lad, at heart, we can rejoice in his dogged resilience and his capacity for self-preservation. The second time he runs away from home, deciding to quit school altogether as well, he stays hidden in the labyrinthine home of fellow classroom drop-out, Rene (Patrick Auffay) for what becomes a sort of surreal episode of cigar-smoking, food-pilfering, small-time theft and fencing of stolen goods, long-distance pea-shooting and frequent cinema trips. Rene's home circumstances are even more bizarre than Antoine's and, although this middle section of the film contains the pivotal deed that will lock him on-course for apparant oblivion, this is where Truffaut almost allows a sort of nostalgic fantasy to creep into the proceedings. The chemistry between Leaud and Auffay is touching, however.
“What are you in for, son?”
“I ran away from home.”
Truffaut's camera prowls the streets of Antoine's Paris suburb to the point where we get to know the stores, the buildings, the busy corner and the layout of his home-turf quite intimately. Firstly, this establishes a sense of reality and setting, which is essential for the documentary feel of the story. But secondly, and more importantly I feel, this places us inside the head of Antoine and almost puts us on his individualistic and dislocated wavelength. We see the shop doorways, the cobbled streets, the cinema and the alleyway door that he hides his school bag behind on such a regular basis that we begin to believe that we are walking - or running - through them ourselves. Thus, there is an added poignancy to our view of them through the bars of the police transfer wagon as Antoine is whisked away to the correctional facility later in the film without the need for any overly-sentimental acting, music or direction. When the time comes, we will feel the same mixture of sorrow, regret and subdued anger at leaving all that we know behind us, as well as Antoine. In this understated manner, Truffaut's style becomes something that gets under the skin and gives us the precise emotion we need to fully empathise with a character who has, irrevocably, turned a major corner.
“If she drops her pen, pick it up, but don't look at her legs. Or else it will be on your record.”
Slyly, after this piece of advice given to the wayward Antoine by a fellow juvenile inmate, Truffaut ensures that such a tantalising moment never actually occurs. We don't even see the female psychologist - only hear her voice.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the film's celebrated final freeze-frame, even if I think it best only to do so in passing, as its effect is better served on those who know little of its importance to the film and to films in general. A deliberate pregnant pause that is held forever and offers no “intrinsic” explanation, the ending of The 400 Blows can't help but isolate and alienate some viewers. I suspect that those who cannot abide John Carpenter's absolutely excellent finale to The Thing (1982), wherein the audience is left to conjure up their own outcome for the movie's two beleaguered survivors, would also take umbrage with Truffaut for failing to satisfy their naïve thirst for a blatant, hand-led pay-off. The truth is that the ending he supplies is enough, and I, personally, find it curiously optimistic. But the point is that it allows for discussion and that, as we know, is always a healthy and productive thing.
The 400 Blows is one of those seminal movies from a period of societal change and, as such, its reflection of life is profoundly valid. But its strength lies as much in what it doesn't do as much as what it does. There are no sledge-hammered moments of filmic finger-pointing, no resolute accusations made and certainly no answers given. As such, the story is thoroughly non-judgemental. Antoine's life is not all that bad, it is merely his own reactions to circumstances that trigger his fall from grace. Once in a while, his parents are even fun to be around - a great family outing to the flicks positively radiates warmth - and school would be a lot more bearable if he could just resist the temptation to muck about. It is often written in the film's synopsis and in reviews for it that Antoine is disliked, but this is completely untrue. He does come across as something of a wilful loner, certainly, but this is only because he is so self-reliant. But Antoine is clearly shown to be popular and to have at least one very good friend back home, and the ability to blend in with the other juvenile inmates at the correctional institution is also readily apparent. He may not look upon these bonds as particularly long-lasting or consequential, but Antoine is not a sad, lonely loser - not by a long shot. As far a depictions of teenage rebellion and moral indecision go, Truffaut's movie is right up there with the best of them. The 400 Blows may be uniquely French in its stylings, but Jean-Pierre Leaud ensures that Antoine is both universal in his plight and intriguingly maverick in his individuality. Truffaut excels in tone and attitude, juggling the documentary aesthetic with the socio-emotional side of things to produce a film that never hits the conventional buttons of either sentimentality or reactionary guilt-tripping. Instead, he lets us draw our own conclusions and the film becomes much stronger and more haunting as a result.
Please note that this Criterion release is locked to Region A.
Our Review Ethos