The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)
Director: Francois Truffaut
Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claire Maurier
I started watching films from 1001 Movies in early 2006, so most of you know I’m pretty far along in the list, but not nearly as far along in my reviewing (partly because it took me awhile to realize that I not only wanted to SEE these films, but reflect and engage in a discourse about them as well). What this has meant for me is that in order to write cogently about a film I’ve only seen once five or six or seven years ago, I make an effort to see it a second time in order to gain inspiration. For most films, this has actually helped them in my eyes; by taking the time to see a film again with an open mind, I’m giving it a second chance, and usually, they fare better in a second go-around.
Never has this been more true than with The 400 Blows.
Because crap, I don’t even know what I was thinking the first time around when I gave it a 6 out of 10 on imdb.
Antoine Doinel (Leaud) is a troublemaker, according to his teachers and his parents. Although lots of students goof off at school, Antoine seems to be the one who gets caught, and his mother (Maurier) is constantly nagging him at home. After skipping school one day with his best friend, he lies to his teachers next day and tells them he was out because his mother died. When his mother finds out about this, Antoine runs away from home for the night. Although eventually returned home, he ultimately gets kicked out of school, steals a typewriter, and his parents cart him off to a juvenile academy.
In my initial blitzkrieg through 1001 Movies, the French New Wave was a major sticking point. I just didn’t get it. I’m not sure I totally get it now, but I feel like I’m slowly starting to understand. And I really didn’t get The 400 Blows the first time.
I rated The 400 Blows on Netflix initially in December 2006 (thanks, Netflix, for storing that data!). That’s important because that tells me I saw it before I went into teaching, and during an especially dark period in my life when I was dreadfully unhappy. I am now in a much better place, I just finished my fifth year as a teacher, and seeing The 400 Blows a second time was almost like a revelation. This movie has so much heart and so much soul, it’s almost painful. I want to reach my arms into the screen and hug Antoine and never let him go, and I think the reason why I found this movie so much more moving than initially is, frankly, because I’m a teacher.
I found the asshole teacher in The 400 Blows absolutely appalling. (Actually, all the teachers in this movie were appalling – especially the phys ed teacher who loses his entire class when he takes them out for a walk around Paris.) He has a classroom full of constantly misbehaving students but only ever blames one or two of them, and Antoine is definitely a scapegoat. (and really, who keeps their backs turned to their students as long as he does? The idiot…) Antoine writes an essay he’s actually proud of about Balzac (well, cribbed from Balzac), and the way the teacher mocks him in front of the class broke my heart. I would never, not in a million years, call out a student who had done something like that in front of a crowd. And with Antoine in particular, I would want to encourage his interest in the works of a noted author rather than constantly stamp out any spark of passion he has.
Because really, that’s what happens in The 400 Blows. Antoine is not a bad kid, he really isn’t, but nothing goes his way. He wants to get his homework done, but then his parents start nagging him to buy flour and set the table and put out the trash. He wants to go to school but his best friend convinces him to skip. He wants to return the stolen typewriter but gets caught in the process. He has so much good in him, SO MUCH, but he cannot escape. He’s not perfect, I don’t mean to imply he’s some angel, because really, kid stole a typewriter, there’s no getting around it, but he’s not what everyone makes him out to be. He has so much heart, so much soul, so much good. He’s fundamentally a good kid. And he gets treated like crap.
Really, the biggest difference for me in this second pass was my understanding of Antoine. Seeing him through the lens of a teacher (hopefully an empathetic one, I always try), rather than as a disillusioned grad student made the film come alive in a way it never did in its first pass.
Leaud as Antoine is amazingly good. Leaud and Truffaut grew up together on film, Leaud as an adolescent to adult, and Truffaut as a young adult to a confident man. Having seen all of Truffaut’s other films from 1001 Movies by this point, I actually enjoyed going back to see his and Leaud’s first again; I felt I had a sense of perspective on this cinematic pairing that I lacked the first time around. Somehow knowing the relationship between the two over the future years to come strengthened my attachment to the film. It’s no secret that The 400 Blows is heavily based on Truffaut’s own experiences as an adolescent, and Leaud is essentially channeling Truffaut himself. Still, Leaud’s performance, even with Truffaut’s obvious help, is fantastic. He can somehow manage to bring all these different sides to Antoine all at once, such as how Antoine loves his mother and craves her attention but also rather hates her at the same time. He’s so utterly real as Antoine. His lines aren’t forced, his flames of emotion don’t seem to be coming out of nowhere, and the final sequence is utterly devastating because of Leaud and Leaud alone. His eyes, his face, his body language, his sense of freedom and rebellion… my heart goes out to Antoine because of Leaud.
After this thoroughly unexpected and, frankly, emotional response to The 400 Blows, I am making a fairly huge amendment to my previous tastes. I used to say that I while I appreciate the French New Wave, I don’t really like it. I am now going to say that I think I am coming around on the French New Wave. I really think I am. Whereas before I felt utterly alienated by the films, this one included, I would never describe my reaction to Antoine here as “distant.” The 400 Blows aches with heart and soul.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10