Friday, 21 April 2017

The 400 Blows (1959)

Fig 1 - The 400 Blows Poster
François Truffaut's debut feature The 400 Blows follows the story of a troubled young Parisian boy whose upbringing and social conditioning have led him to traverse a path of naive criminal activity. Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is consistently scolded by his teacher (Guy Decomble), who often chooses to punish him over his similarly misbehaved peers. His mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) exhibits a cold and strenuous relationship with him from the outset, living as they do in a minuscule apartment in which there is little privacy to be had. With them lives Antoine's stepfather, Julien (Albert Rémy) with whom he appears to have a better relationship. It is clear that Gilberte and Julien are a dysfunctional couple who have little reason to trust Antoine on his word about anything, despite repeatedly giving him a second chance. When Antoine doesn't get his homework complete by the next school day, he decides to skip school entirely. When he hasn't any excuse the following day, Antoine tells his teacher his mother has died. From here, Antoine struggles with balancing the exhilaration of his independence and the consequences of his questionable decisions, giving him much to reconcile with before things take a turn for the worst.

One scene early-on in which Antoine is riding a zoetrope feels particularly indicative of his mental state during the film, being as he is a very distant young man. The scene tracks Antoine being pushed against the whirling ride to the extent that he is able to freely defy gravity and turn himself almost upside-down, cut together with perspective shots of the onlooking crowd. In this instance, the blurred faces passing by could be representative of the many figures in his life trying to navigate him in all manner of directions. For example, his friend René (Patrick Auffay) is a constant helping hand in times that Antoine feels cornered or fearful of the penalties of his actions. Whereas Gilberte at one point bargains with Antoine to achieve better grades, only to be accused of plagiarism when he finally buckles down. In his many attempts to 'do the right thing', Antoine is only left more confused and alone than he was before, making him a character we can utterly sympathise with.

Fig 2 - The 400 Blows - Antoine
The tone of the film feels almost like a glorification of the lead's decisions in it's tone and editing. Even during a scene in which Antoine is riding in the back of a police truck, the accompanying score as he looks on at the dazzling luminous street signs is one of romanticism over morosity. The film never detracts from it's position on the side of Antoine and it shows in his every action. From being slapped for lying and then taken to the movies for almost burning the house down, the fault is almost never with Antoine but the confusing disciplinary methods of his guardians. It becomes difficult to remember just how young the boy is by the end of the film, when in the last shot he approaches the sea in pursuit of his freedom, only to find he has become completely trapped by his own doing. Incidentally, Jean-Pierre Léaud gives a show-stealing performance as the central character, whose ability to reflect a great many emotions in his isolation (particularly at a young age) make him a compelling screen presence throughout.

I think The 400 Blows is a pretty beautiful sentiment about the struggles of coming to terms with alienation and the reality of life's hardships. It ultimately tells us that our upbringing should not dictate who we choose to be, though our actions may not always reflect exactly who we are.


Fig. 1 The 400 Blows Poster (1959) From: The 400 Blows - Directed by: François Truffaut

Fig. 2 The 400 Blows Screenshot (1959) From: The 400 Blows - Directed by: François Truffaut

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