“Oh, I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.” – Antoine Doinel
La Nouvelle Vague or the French New Wave that swept through France in the late 1950’s resulted in a number of acclaimed films made by a handful of talented young filmmakers. Of these artists, François Truffaut entered the cinematic stage with his feature film, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) in 1959. The film portrays Truffaut’s childhood, as a preteen, recreated. As played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the film’s protagonist, Antoine Doinel, comes to us as this re-imagined figure. Throughout the course of the film the young character becomes isolated and misunderstood by his parents, schoolteachers, and, subsequently, the rest of society. The 400 Blows follows the story of an adolescent boy and his unlucky positioning in his relationships with authority figures. Antoine is not the only schoolboy to misbehave; though it seems as though he is the only one to get caught. Even Antoine’s comrade, who accompanies him on many of his defiant escapades, is never reprimanded.
Through experimental camera angles, extended shots, and naturalistic lighting, Truffaut explores an almost cynical, yet extremely realistic journey of a young adolescent and his “gradual disaffection” from his family and society (Croce 35). Truffaut’s ironic visual representation of juvenile curiosity, naïveté, and rebelliousness reveals to his audience the corruption and humiliation French society forced on its youth.
The irony in Truffaut’s depiction of Antoine is clear from the first scene of the film and becomes representative of Antoine’s isolation within society. In this early scene, the camera looks down on the children, panning over them to follow the transfer of a pin-up photo from boy to boy. Of course, it is Antoine who gets caught with this photo, marking the beginning of his bad luck on camera. As Henry B. Maloney argues, “Truffaut tells his story with a screen full of ironies” (563). In his review of The 400 Blows, Maloney successfully catalogues these ironic points in the film where:
[Antoine leaves] the abandoned factory where he had intended to spend the night after running away from home. He dispiritedly walks by a window with “Joyeux Noel” lettered on it. He is expelled from school for plagiarism because he has read Balzac so intently that he memorizes a section of it. He is caught, not while stealing a typewriter, but while attempting to return it (563).
Antoine’s isolation is the affect of his overwhelming misfortune of getting into trouble; yet Truffaut’s cinematic focus on Antoine heightens the audience’s sense of this isolation. There are scenes in the film where Antoine is silent, his parents are yelling at one another, and yet the camera remains focused on him. The long, extended shots focused on Antoine serve to put the audience in the perspective of the boy, realistically and without any interruptions. Having said this, The 400 Blows “isn’t sentimental,” as Arlene Croce points out (35). Though the film’s point of view is almost always fixated on Antoine, it is for purpose of realism over melodrama.
In his interview with Paul Ronder, Truffaut states that, “I made [the] film in a very instinctive way… much of the film was essentially a documentary, and this necessitated an enormous neutrality on my part” (5-6). He continues by asserting: “The film I made was without form, neutral – since my direction of it was as objective as possible and corresponded almost to a self-effacement” (6). The 400 Blows is, therefore, a modest representation of adolescence. Truffaut’s “simplicity” allows for the underlying message to take center-stage, without disruption (6). The film is a harsh reality in itself; it is a portrayal “about the suffering an average schoolboy must endure if he has the bad luck to be considered a criminal by both his family and the state,” and because “he represents the burden of an impossible marriage, he is [condemned] to the vice-ridden world of adults” (Croce 35).
With this, Truffaut effectively speaks out against the society in which Antoine lives. The conflicting groups of authority in the film put extreme pressure on Antoine to fit in and stay compliant. Though The 400 Blows remains focused on Antoine, the film’s message speaks to a wider social issue of the time. While within the context of the film Antoine seems to be the only child to get caught, it is clear that Truffaut’s reasoning of this is to create a cinematic aura of isolation over importance. For example, Antoine isn’t the only child to misbehave and he is in no way ‘special.’ An interesting scene in the middle of the film shows a gym teacher with his whistle blowing and students following or at least, so the teacher assumes. As “[t]he camera falls back to a distance shot, presumably from atop a building, [it watches] contentedly as boys sneak out of line in twos and threes while the teacher trots along waving his arms, oblivious to anything except the satisfaction of his own exertions” (Maloney 563). It is in this scene that the audience comes face-to-face with the reality of Antoine’s dilemma and how easily it could happen to any child within the same context.
Antoine “is a straw tossed by twin hurricanes: his family and society. His crime is trivial; his capture is ironic. The treatment he receives is heartless and unreasonable” (Shatnoff 4). Antoine’s reality in the film was the reality in… reality. As Truffaut puts it, “I will never again find a subject as direct, as strongly felt, nor one which provides me with so little choice” (Ronder 6). France – especially at the time of the New Wave – was experiencing back lash from the war: “French law [was] brutal and perverse: a man is guilty until he proves himself innocent; a man can be held incommunicado for days in one of those clever chicken-cages, shown in the film, in which young, old, murderers, maniacs, pickpockets, traffic violators, are thrown together indiscriminately” (Shatnoff 4). The construct of society at this time made it plausible for a child’s innocence to be completely defeated; in contrast to heartwarming coming-of-age stories, The 400 Blows is brutally realistic.
The infamous revolving drum-scene “injects the first disturbing note,” and may signify an allegory for the chaotic shifting of authoritative responsibility over Antoine within French society. Antoine’s parents are both figures of authority, but each one disagrees with and blames the other, and conflict arises when neither parent can discern who holds responsibility over who in giving Antoine money; teachers comment amongst themselves regarding parents’ lack of authority over children; police officer A shifts his authority over to police officer B because police officer A wants to go home; and the judge, seen near the end of the film, blames the mother and father for Antoine’s predicament. This infamous drum-scene “is, perhaps, a presentiment of [this] brutalization. A small, blurred figure flattened on the side of an enormous whirling cylinder, and the cylinder turning in the expanse of the widescreen – for a moment the film itself seems to be out of control” (Croce 36). And yet this chaotic, constrained scene emulates the perfect contrast to the final scene of the movie.
The infamous revolving drum-scene… may signify an allegory for the chaotic shifting of authoritative responsibility over Antoine within French society.
In this last scene, it seems Antoine is finally able to break free from all restraints of society. The film’s protagonist is beautifully captured running in an extended shot for 3 minutes and 43 seconds to the same music that is played during another extended shot of Paris’ streets in opening credits of the film. The parallel between the opening and final scene of the film perhaps signifies the relationship between Paris as the city and Antoine as an adolescent free from that city – a city filled with corruption, immorality, and humiliation. Here, Truffaut is possibly suggesting that “a society which has always prided itself on its rational base, is really inhuman; that to fear this society is not paranoiac, but logical and necessary” – to run from this society, as Antoine does by the end, is the only way to achieve freedom (Shatnoff 4).
Truffaut’s reformation of his own childhood serves not as a cinematic parade on ego, but rather a simple, yet brutally raw story concerning the relationship between adolescence and society. The film’s dark and natural lighting, long shots, and brilliantly fresh acting by Jean-Pierre Léaud attribute to the height of the overarching message in The 400 Blows. Although the film’s shots are focused mainly on Antoine, Truffaut shows his audience the extreme possibility that any child in French society could be exposed to isolation and immorality; thus, the camera steadily scans over the disobedience of the other children in the film and then pulls in the audience’s attention to Antoine.
By the end however, it is not the audience’s attention that is drawn to Antoine but his attention that is drawn to the audience. In the final scene, Antoine looks at the viewer in a chilling moment that reveals the severity and scope of the issue. Truffaut’s brilliant masterpiece, The 400 Blows, leaves the audience with no room to sigh, only to think. We are left with a young boy, beaten down by his society, staring at us in the eye. The only thing that is left to question is: Have we done this?
Croce, Arlene. “Review: Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) by François Truffaut.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3. University of California Press: Spring 1960. 35-38. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015).
Maloney, Henry B. “Especially for Teachers.” The Clearing House. Vol. 34, No. 9. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: May 1960. 563-564. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015).
Ronder, Paul and François Truffaut. “François Truffaut: An Interview.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 17, No.1. University of California Press: Autumn 1963. 3-13. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015)
Shatnoff, Judith. “François Truffaut: The Anarchist Imagination.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 16, No.3. University of California Press: Spring 1963. 3-11. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015).