Double Take: The 400 Blows (1959)

Double Take turns its attention to François Truffaut's classic coming-of-age tale The 400 Blows, whose cinematic progeny includes the much-acclaimed Boyhood.
1959-11-16 (General)

François Truffaut made four more films following the lead character of The 400 Blows, but we at Double Take find it hard to think of watching them. We’re still stuck on the freeze-frame of this French new wave masterpiece.

Steve Pick: We come to a movie made when I was an infant starring actors who were children themselves back in 1959, directed by a critic-turned-auteur, that started a new wave in cinema. How the heck do we find anything new to say about this flick? It’s one of the most discussed films in history, isn’t it? Well, I can start by saying that until two years ago, The 400 Blows was merely an entry in great films lists that I’d read about. As it turns out, I think I slept through about 20 minutes of it that time I saw it, as I didn’t remember much at all about Antoine’s time in the camp for wayward boys.

So my viewpoints are my own, and they are pretty much enthralled by this sympathetic look at a poor young boy who tries so hard to impress and gets nothing but trouble for it. There’s plenty to talk about, for sure. We can talk about falling in love with Paris as a background. Then there are the tight, claustrophobic home scenes in juxtaposition to the lively, exuberant day of playing hooky. Also important is the slow painful build-up of Antoine’s night in jail. Of course, there’s also the portrayal of the French school system, filled with the boys who would possibly be part of the university uprisings in 1968. I think there’s also plenty to say about the complex figure of Antoine’s mother and Truffaut’s obvious unfamiliarity with the reasons cats howl. But I will begin merely by saying that after seeing this thing 1 and ¾ times, I really want more of that little kid who tears up his notebook in the opening school scene because he is a real scene-stealer. Steve?

Steve Leftridge: Thank you, Steve. That kid with the leaky pen is indeed a hoot, and a good example of Truffaut’s roving camera and observational style. In that scene, for instance, the teacher has ordered Antoine to get water from the bathroom to clean up the graffiti Antoine had just written on the wall. Instead of using two or three cameras and a lot of cuts, the camera instead just lingers for a couple of minutes on the kid struggling with his notebook, for no specific narrative purpose, which distinguishes the filmic language of The 400 Blows from what was being churned out by the late-‘50s Hollywood studio system. This somewhat wandering technique contributes to the film’s deliberately paced action, which is interesting in both concept and execution, along with the use of natural light and sound (except for maybe those unearthly cat yowls you mention).

We see the leaky-pen kid again from time to time, particularly in the great sequence, shot from a window far above the street, of the outdoor PE parade, during which the kids skip out of line one by one until there are hardly any kids left following the clueless teacher, another example of Truffaut’s readiness to let the narrative ramble a bit. Something about these scenes reveals the director’s exuberance for filmmaking itself, his fascination with what the camera is capable of capturing in small moments of watching human behavior.

The love of movies — or the transcendent power of going to the movies — is not just evident in Truffaut’s stylistic choices but is also explicitly present in the film. When Antoine and René ditch school, they slip into a movie theater for part of the day, a fantastical escape in contrast to the stifling formality of the classroom. Then there’s the one time that we see Antoine with his parents actually connecting, laughing, and having a good time is when they go to the movies. (This scene reminds me of the joyfulness of the characters in Mean Streets, the film we discussed in our first installment, when they head to the theater to see The Searchers.)

But, hey, you mention Antoine’s mother in your opener. She’s sort of set up as the antagonist in the film, but do you find anything sympathetic about this character? Are we intended to see her, on some level, as a sympathetic character?

Pick: Small moments of human behavior. That’s what we get from la mère de Antoine, played by Claire Maurier, who kept reminding me of Hope Lange, through no fault of her own. I guess she’s an antagonist to her son, but then again, pretty much every character except his friend René treats him as less than the sweet young boy he really wants to be. Me, I see her as a woman trapped by circumstance, who had a baby out of wedlock in a time when that was frowned upon, who married a man she didn’t really love just to make that baby have a normal life, who cheats at least once in order to find herself wanted in ways her husband doesn’t make her feel, who tries more than once to make the family be happy, and who has no idea how to connect with her son as a person. The scene near the end when she visits him in the camp is heartbreaking because she still loves him, but has absolutely no idea what to do with him.

The father at first seems more sympathetic, playfully jostling with Antoine when he comes home from work, laughing and smiling and getting on with the task of cooking dinner while his wife is off sleeping with her boss. But he is even less connected to Antoine than the mother; in fact, he seems less interested in anything deeper than a diversion from his job. He washes his hands of Antoine, leaving him to the vagaries of the criminal system. I said he doesn’t want his wife in the way she wants a man to want her, and I don’t mean just sexually. His one come-on to her was to grab her breasts as if they were a pair of old-fashioned car horns; the one shot of her with her lover was a tender kiss and touches which looked like actual caring.

I mentioned René earlier; he struck me as an intriguing character who would, unlike Antoine, never let circumstance bring him down. What’s your take on the way Truffaut set these two boys up? For instance, why did Antoine get on that spinning carnival ride while René just watched?

Leftridge: I want to get to René and the ride, but first let me circle back to Antoine’s parents. I appreciate your compassionate take on Mrs. Doinel. although I find her mostly an insidious force. She never wanted Antoine in the first place; she wanted an abortion, then to have him shipped off to a foster home, and then to her own mother until he was eight. She was only able to tolerate him for three years. I get that she’s in a miserable marriage, can’t pay the gas bill, agonizes over aging, etc., so I don’t begrudge her pursuit of happiness; it’s her wholesale rejection of her 11-year-old son that’s appalling. It’s one thing to ignore Antoine around the house or to seek the attentions of another man in response to her feckless husband; it’s another to rage at night about giving Antoine away while he lies listening, to try to bribe Antoine into keeping her affair a secret, or to bluntly explain to Antoine in the detention camp that he’s no longer wanted: “And don’t go crying to your father. He told me to tell you that he doesn’t care about you anymore.” I see no evidence that she loves him at all, smirking at him when informing him that he’ll be sent to Labor Camp: “You wanted to work. Now we’ll see if you like it.” I give his stepfather more of a pass. He’s kind of a buffoon, the hapless cuckold, but, as you mention, he demonstrates more friendliness and attention to Antoine than his wife does even though he’s not the biological parent.

Now René. He’s the kid who doesn’t get into trouble. The contrast between René and Antoine is clear from the way they dress (René’s snappy coat and tie vs. Antoine’s longshoreman’s jacket) and from the fact that René knows the ropes of how to effectively play hooky (where to stash your backpack, how to forge a permission note, etc.). René appears to have certain advantages (money, parents who love him), a support system that Antoine lacks. Therefore, René walks between the raindrops, while Antoine, a sweet, curious kid, gets into more and more trouble. Or to use a different metaphor, Antoine’s world spins out of control, hence the Vomitron ride. Unlike everyone else on the ride — including the director himself, in a cameo –Antoine fights the centrifugal forces of the ride: he tries to pull away from it, even turning totally upside-down at one point. But ultimately the ride wins, just as the systems that control Antoine’s life have their way with him despite whatever moves he makes. René is not on the same ride, either literally or figuratively.

Pick: Look at you, Steve, reasonably countering my points with relevant examples from the film itself. I still think the mother is more complex than you do, but I can’t refute the specific elements of her character, which you actually quoted. At any rate, I think we can agree that Antoine really wants to please her and doesn’t realize that this is virtually impossible much of the time. As for René, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head figuring out his role in the film. He wants to help Antoine, but most of the things he does leave Antoine spinning and unsteady.

I love the shot of René coming to visit Antoine at the home and being refused entry. That look of sorrow on Antoine’s face, and the shrug-the-shoulders departure of René was a perfect encapsulation of their relationship. René wanted to make Antoine feel better, but of course, he can’t. Antoine can only do that for himself, which leads him to escape and make some of the longest tracking shots of an actor running in film history. Of course, the beautiful thing is the way Truffaut keeps him mostly in center frame, which, despite the changing background, recalls nothing so much as the spinning carnival ride, suggesting that he’s not really getting away at all. Then, he finally gets to the sea (which was what his mother asked the judge to sentence him near — again, an attempt to please la mère), and we are given that absolutely devastating freeze frame and the giant word “Fin”.

What can he do from here but go back? The sea is no good to anybody without a boat, and Antoine is left with the freedom he desired but nobody to celebrate his accomplishment and no way to achieve anything more. A stunning finish to a riveting film.

And somehow, we get to the end of this discussion without mentioning the fantastic opening sequence, a circular tour of Paris with the Eiffel Tower smack dab in the middle, though often out of frame. If I ever get to that city and it doesn’t look like it does in this film, I’ll be seriously disappointed.

Leftridge: I agree with you Alpha to Omega here; that is, I love the urban photography during the open sequence, and the final shot of Antoine running and that iconic freeze-frame leave me shaken. It’s appropriate that the film ends with a shot of that uncertain look on his face, a kid utterly lost and alone. It’s also telling that once Antoine reaches the shore, he turns around and is facing away from it again as the film locks on him, indicating that he can, as you said, go no farther, as the sea is both a symbol of freedom and limitation. The film is stuffed with these kinds of symbols: the Tom’s Twister ride of childhood elation/despair, the sleeping bag of claustrophobia, the stolen milk of mother’s absent nourishment, the puppet show of innocence quickly being lost, etc.

And throughout it all is the devastatingly great Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine. I can’t think of a more poignant, realistic performance by a child in all of cinema. It’s a film that doesn’t age. The 400 Blows is the universal story of how we assign and set up a disadvantaged child into a life of desperation and eventual delinquency, in this case a series of events, starting with the benign circumstance of being the student who happens to have the girly photo when the teacher turns around, which eventually leads to Antoine taking on the role of the caged, cigarette-smoking criminal. Antoine’s story, of course, doesn’t end with that freeze-frame on the beach. Truffaut made four more Antoine Doinel films, all starring Jean-Pierre Léaud. But, to be honest, I haven’t been able to bring myself to continue with his story and watch those sequels. I’m still stuck on that freeze-frame.


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