Monday, October 20, 2008

The 400 Blows

Francois Truffaut
B&W, 98 minutes, 1958

I think of Francois Truffaut as a great storyteller, one who ‘writes’ with a camera instead of a pen or word processor. This is not a criticism of his obviously expressive, lyrical, technically adventurous camera work. Story does not serve as a pretext for innovation and pyrotechnics in film-making; story is the raw stuff of Truffaut's vision of Life and is the reason for his acclaim as a French New Wave director.

Perhaps his most famous film as well as his first feature-length film, The 400 Blows is more widely known for its subject matter and its typical Truffaut child-protagonist than for any editing or timing or direction. Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the central character, 14-year-old Antoine Doinel, gives a stunning performance as the rebellious, immature artist. No other child-actor performance came close to Léaud’s until Steven Spielberg made Empire of the Sun with a young Christian Bale who also gives a stunning performance. The similarity between the two films of master directors demonstrates their mutual affinities for children’s perspectives as well as technical expertise. And both men are capable of showing the dark side of Life through children’s eyes while also maintaining the more familiar and safe attributes of a child’s whimsy and innocence.

The 400 Blows is, in my opinion, two different films, fused seamlessly together but that could also stand apart as complete and satisfying short films in themselves. The first half of The 400 Blows is the more innocent and optimistic film, full of the warmth and hope that so often characterize Truffaut’s films. Jean-Pierre Léaud and the other children in his class commit petty crimes aplenty, demonstrate both a hidden and open disrespect for the dull and stodgy adults that Fate has inflicted upon them, upon every child that has parents or teachers.

There are moments of brutality and abuse in the first part of The 400 Blows, certainly, but these afflictions are easily absorbed and overcome by the children’s own ingenious, if whacky, strategies. But there are deeper currents in the first part of the film that both serve as a pretext for the second, darker, less hopeful half of the film and enrich our understanding of what may be unique to Antoine Doinel’s personal experience.

It might be helpful to take a moment and explain some of the background information on this film, from the notion that The 400 Blows is an autobiographical film of Truffaut’s real experiences as a child, to the connotations of the name of the film.

All of the film is based on autobiographical materials from both Truffaut’s life and that of his best friend (from the age of 11 to the end of Truffaut’s life), Robert Lachenay. But according to Lachenay’s interviews on the Criterion Collection edition of The 400 Blows, the darkness of the film came from the two boys’ experiences during the Occupation, where the Nazis ruled over France. The privations of the film would take another meaning or tone entirely if Truffaut had set his movie during those darker, communal times. The eccentricities, cruelties, and perversions of the adults would seem the lesser of evils compared to Truffaut’s experience of Nazi-occupied Paris.

Additionally, Truffaut and his best friend and collaborator took scenes from their more mature troubles assimilating to Nation Service, France’s mandatory military service. All of the bleak jail scenes and the deadening process of the juvenile criminal system owe as much, if not more, to Truffaut and Lachenay’s failure to assimilate into the anonymous workings of the Army than any memory of two 14-year-olds

Another problem with understanding this film is the title. The 400 Blows seems more like an existentialist description of a young artist who willfully and stubbornly chooses rebellion against the corrupt and disturbed adult world that has him within its power. In French, the title is a colloquialism that means something like ‘sowing wild oats’ or ‘raising hell;’ a title that has more in common with Truffaut’s first short film (which Lachenay fully funded), Les Mistons (The Brats) than with Sartre or Camus.

The second film concentrates on Doinel’s experiences after being turned over to the police by his stepfather. There are no more gags or laughs. Doinel, who always had a sense of acceptance beneath his rebellion—that his treatment is just the way of the world, seems even more passive. But there are scenes of Doinel learning from his other prisoners, especially the mythology and meaning of escaping from the detention facility. We are shown images that remind us of World War II: small children with their faces pressed against the wiring, locked in a pen; the escapee being led away by the authorities to an unknown fate; Doinel’s degradation with one of the proctors, forced to choose which hand the man will use to slap Doinel in the face.

These two films, or the division within a single construction, along with everything I have mentioned thus far makes any reading of The 400 Blows very problematic for me.

Is Truffaut aware that the light-hearted title and the first half of the film is strongly contrasted to the darkness of the rest of the film? What did he mean by the title? What does he mean by claiming to base this film on autobiographical materials when friends and collaborators indicate a mixture of more than one man’s memories, and a much wider age range than Truffault focuses on Antoine Doinel?

There are more troubles for a viewer in the first half of the film. Here, I would like to discuss the relationship between Antoine and his mother. All of the other commentary I have heard in researching these scenes between mother and son look upon their relationship as one of mutual lying to the father, a kind of co-opting of the son by the mother to deceive the father. Such a reading of the scenes is certainly valid. But I would add a more sinister aspect of the relationship, one where the mother—accustomed to manipulating men with her sexuality—uses her physical presence to “seduce” her 14-year-old son.

We first meet Mrs. Doinel when she returns home and chastises Antoine for forgetting to buy flour. She is sitting on Antoine’s bed, clearly visible to us and so probably to Antoine as well, and removing her nylon stockings. When we first met Antoine Doinel he was caught as the last in line of school boys passing a pin-up drawing in class—the boys are obviously at the crux of puberty, enormously influenced and confused by their growing awareness of sexuality.

Later in the first half of the film, Doinel runs away from home. However, he doesn’t skip school even though he is now presumably his own master. Ms. Doinel comes to collect the missing son and takes him home. We are shown a fairly long scene of the mother’s manipulation of her love (perhaps more) for the boy by bathing him, kissing his abdomen through the towel, denying Antoine a nightshirt, sending him to bed naked. Mrs. Doinel sits on the edge of Antoine’s bed trying to discover what Antoine knows, if and whom he told anything about her behavior.

Mrs. Doinel’s actions are evidence of either an unconscious or corrupt attitude of a mother toward her son. Clearly a case for a mother’s “seduction” of her young son would not stretch credulity.

Is it Truffaut’s intention to include this dysfunctional (to say the least) primal scene as a key to Doinel’s character, his family’s psychology, and the complete corruption of adult society?

Despite the questions I've raised (and others I have no space to discuss), The 400 Blows remains a lyrical and powerful film almost 30 years after Truffaut made it. His storytelling instincts, his use of memory and nostalgia, his presenting his film from a child’s point-of-view without condescension or lack of authenticity, all of these things identify Truffaut as a master film-maker. The details and questions that may or may not be left for us to find in a close reading of the film provide an unusually powerful depth for a movie of this genre.

Perhaps the most emblematic of the difficulty of “reading” The 400 Blows is the final shot of the film. Antoine Doinel has escaped the detention center only to arrive at the seashore, a place Doinel previously said he wished he could see. But now he reaches the knife’s-edge between the end of land and the beginning of an immense ocean. Truffaut freezes Doinel’s picture and the look on Jean-Pierre Léaud’s face is as mysterious as a mask.

How much do we really understand about Antoine Doinel; or about The 400 Blows that is his biography? How close a fit is Truffaut’s own image to that of his young actor’s? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere upon Doinel’s face...somewhere deep within this extraordinary film.

** images available from

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