In the 1938 film biographical drama Boys Town, we learned how Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) set up an orphanage for young boys, living by the code that there was “no such thing as a bad boy”.
If only he had met young Antoine Doinel, the subject of The 400 Blows.
A very simple concept, The 400 Blows centers on a young boy, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud). He is the only child of his mother and step-father, and is subject to lack of any attention given to him. The same is not the case in the classroom, as his teacher (nicknamed “Sourpuss”) is old fashioned, tough and (for the most part) unsympathetic. It is no wonder that, as a result, the young Antoine resorts to mischief- an old school Bart Simpson, if you will.
His one good friend Rene (Patrick Auffay) is not the best of influences, nor is his step father (Albert Remy), despite his outgoing nature. As for Antoine’s mother, she does have at least one moment of sympathy with her son, but she is also having an affair. Her last conversation with her son is, to put it bluntly, heartbreaking to see.
The film (whose title comes from the French expression of “to live a wild life”) was a break through in cinema history, as it was one of the first films of the French New Wave. While it may be hard nowadays to see how the film was fresh and new, that does not mean some of the scenes are still a joy to behold. This is due in no small part to the film’s director and screenwriter Francois Truffaut. Being that this was his first film as a director, it ranks up there as one of the best directorial debuts.
My favorite shot of Truffaut’s is of the gym teacher leading the boys out for a run (which none of them are doing), and we see small clusters of the boys run off until only two or so remain. I had to remind myself the scene was not done in one take, even though part of it is filmed from above while the rest is on the ground. It is seamless filmmaking.
Parents, unless your children are really into the history of cinema, this movie would most likely bore them.
If you are like me, you find it difficult to decide whether to have pity on the young protagonist or not. It is definitely true that his actions are wrong (playing hooky, stealing, and lying, to name a few). Antoine is indeed unlucky throughout the film, as we see in the first scene when it is he who is caught passing the semi-explicit calander around the room. Is it entirely his fault when, in his room, we see him lighting a candle in a mini shrine to a picture of the famous novelist Balzac?
All of this leads to the ending, where the youngster comes to the place he has never seen before: the ocean. He runs to the shore line in one long take (the beach is really big), he looks around, and then the freeze frame as he looks into the camera. Many movies have used the freeze frame to end a movie with great effect (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, The Breakfast Club, a number of the Rocky films, Thelma & Louise, and Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, to name a few). Yet none have been as soul piercing as that given here by the character of Antoine. Is he shaken? Elated? Befuddled? It is as open to interpretation as anything I have seen on screen (and that includes the endings of both The Shining & Inception).
Recently, I discovered (rather late I admit) that the character of Antoine Doinel would return in four more films directed by Truffaut (one short, three full length). I know now what I am going to be binge watching.