The 400 Blows

The film I watched today was François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959). I've seen it before in just about every film class that I have ever taken. I wasn't a huge fan of it the first time I saw it in some history of film class. I found it sort of plodding and tedious, and I was too busy trying to look at why it was important to film history to focus on the characters or the plot. The more I see this film, the more I grow to love it. I feel such a tenderness for the characters, and watching it again comfortable in my own house, no pressures of essays or debates, I was able to really enjoy the film again. There were so many moments I was so happy to see again - the charming scene where some P.E. teacher is out forcing the kids to jog and they all escape while his back is turned. It makes me smile, and it makes me sort of nostalgic, as well (maybe because I have many fond memories of causing ruckus in PE in high school).  I was able to feel more personal emotions about this film, watching it outside of the classroom.

The title of the film is a sort of mis-translation of a French phrase that means "the hell raisers" or something to that extent. It's a sort of autobiographical film about Truffaut's own childhood, and follows the character of Antoine Doinel as he struggles through adolescence. I will use spoilers in this post, but I do recommend highly that you see this film, it's quite wonderful.

I think it's such an easy film to relate to because everyone can empathize with Antoine. There are so many moments or feelings in the beginning of the film that I remember experiencing during adolescence. They are charming, in some way, to watch now, but I remember how frustrating those feelings were -  like nothing you could do was right. You try to find your place in the world, and you want for...something...but you cannot name what it is. You lash out in all these various ways in this struggle, but you always end up confronted with authority who seem so out of touch with what you are going through. There is a scene in the film when Antoine vandalizes a wall in his classroom, and his teacher yells at him to go get something to clean it up. While the rest of the class fools around instead of learning, Antoine gets some rags and water and starts to clean the wall. When the teacher looks at the wall, he yells at Antoine for making it more of a mess. Later, his mother chides him for his bad grades, but then yells at him for doing his homework on the dining table before they eat. I think everyone has had these sort of moments, where it seems like no matter what they do, they are always wrong. At the very least, I felt that way often, and I really feel for Antoine during the film.

It makes the end scene so much more powerful, because we feel for him so much. After Antoine escapes from the detention house and runs towards the sea, he looks into the camera lens. He is trapped - he escaped, he has freedom, but to do what? There isn't anywhere else to run. His parents made it painfully clear how they did not want him, and he can't find a home anywhere else. I always had to look at that scene visually - "Isn't so special how Truffaut breaks the fourth wall?" It is special, and important, but you need to really love and appreciate the rest of the film to care about the end scene. You need to have feelings for Antoine. It's so bleak, to see him trapped there. No one really handled him correctly. He didn't need to be shipped off to a detention house, and it's clear that Truffaut wants us to see that mistreatment.

In Ebert's essay on this film, he says, "Little is done in the film for pure effect. Everything adds to the impact of the final shot" (The Great Movies, 8). This is very true - the whole film leads up to that shot, and each moment, the ones of tenderness and frustration, are what make the end shot so important and powerful. Ebert also writes a lot about Truffaut himself in his essay, mentioning how often cinema is used in his films, because "the cinema saved Francois Truffaut's life, he said again and again. It took a delinquent student and gave him something to love, and with the encouragement of Bazin he became a critic and then made this film by his 27th birthday" (The Great Movies, 10). His words about Truffaut helped me appreciate the autobiographical aspect of this film, more than I did before. It also made me more curious to view some of the other works that Ebert brings up (he writes a lot about Truffaut and his various works in his essay), since I haven't seen them. I know that there are other films that Truffaut made that feature Antoine, but I haven't seen any of them yet. Something to check out if I ever have free time to rent movies again, I guess. :)

I still delight in the visuals and the score of this film, but it was nice to be able to write about some other aspect of it, for once!

Ebert's Great Movies Essay
Original Trailer

This movie is currently streaming on Netflix, also.

8 1/2

2001: A Space Odyssey