If I taught French or film, I’m have all my students watch François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. I’d seen it years ago and after watching the other films centered on Antoine Doinel, I had to re-watch the first.
Formidable! I see why this is deemed among the top of the French New Wave movement. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud in his first film, The 400 Blows introduces filmgoers to Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s alter ego, who’s constantly chastised at school by his poor overworked, overwhelmed teacher who spends his days getting 50 some students to recite poems they don’t care about and winds up blowing his top everyday. School is a dull hell full of humiliation. Then at home poor Antoine has ripped pajamas in an old bed stuck in a corner of the kitchen. His parents argue constantly. His mother is constantly on his back. She never learned to mother as she was a teenage mother who did not want her son, who her mother convinced her to have. Antoine is acutely aware how unwanted he was and is.
Yet Antoine is clever, though irresponsible. He cuts school with his friend René. When he gets in trouble at school he tells his teacher that his mother has died. Of course, his lie is revealed and as usual severely punished so he runs away from home.
Antoine’s life spirals downward. Sure he made stupid mistakes and sure he was dodgy, but other than René this poor boy has no one on his side. It’s just heart-breaking. To think that Truffaut’s life is even tougher is painful to imagine. The film is shot masterfully. The acting so real and moving. It’s a haunting film that though I saw it (for the second time) last week, I still think of The 400 Blows.
The Criterion Collection DVD includes interviews with Truffaut, Léaud’s screen test and other bonuses.