Director: François Truffaut
Writer: François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
Cinematographer: Henri Decaë
Producer: François Truffaut and Georges Charlot
by Jon Cvack
I think this is at least one of the first ten classic foreign films I had ever watched, alongside Bicycle Thieves (1948) or Breathless (1960). I remembered little beyond the final freeze-frame at the beach, having read at least half a dozen essays on what it all meant in college and not remembering a thing. Like Breathless, it was a film that was over-intellectualized; deconstructing each and every frame until there was nothing left to see beyond the academics. This old Criterion disc featured Truffaut’s sequel, Antoine and Colette (1962).
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve developed a strange pleasure with watching old foreign films nowadays; as though it only took a decade to love them both for their craft and their stories (both actual and historical), rather than for the significance they held. I call bullshit on nascent cinephiles who allege genuine pleasure while watching October beyond the pride in being one of the few who consumed it (I say this once having that feeling; at least compared to hedonistic feeling it provides me now).
The series begins with a realism that allows the endearing to create the bizarre, rather than how the later films forfeited a bit of reality in order to accommodate more colorful plots. The 400 Blows follows Antoine Doinel as a fourteen-year-old boy living in a lower-class apartment with his unfaithful mother and a deadbeat father. Antoine sleeps in a nook next to a kitchen, laying in a sleeping bag on a piece of plywood. The arrangement fails to help his ailing studies, in which he cuts class to gallivant the neighborhood; creating one of the film’s most memorable scenes which would go on to forever inspire stories about cutting school; making you wonder if Ferris Bueller is entirely based from this one montage.
His mother and father are called in by the teacher. They try to discipline the boy, never taking themselves into consideration and how their treatment affects him. But its Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance that prevents the character from ever feeling entirely like a victim. Léaud appears as much deliberate as confused throughout the movie; expressing awareness years ahead of his peers in that what else is there to do but live life to the fullest, especially when you’re young?
After getting kicked out of school for plagiarizing a Balzac essay, he and his friend fall further into the Dionysian lifestyle, culminating in the theft of Antoine’s stepdad’s typewriter back at work. The theft lands Antoine in jail, serving as the final straw for his parents who take him out of school and toss him into a reform academy.
In the second most famous scene, Antoine is interviewed by the child psychologist, shot as though in her POV while Antoine explains - in a purely objective, nearly (but not entirely) emotionless terms - why he did what he did and is what he is. He starts off explaining why he stole 10,000 francs from his grandmother, to which he says with full conviction that she sleeps all day and doesn’t need the money and is probably going to do die soon; what sounds like something his mother would say in defense of a comparable action. Antoine goes on to explain that his mother then stole the money he stole that night, along with a book his grandmother gave him.
The questioner continues as to why Antoine doesn’t like his mother - to which Antoine explains that he has forever resented how his mother left him after birth with a wet nurse, then moving onto his grandmother’s when his mother couldn’t afford it, who then got too old to take care of him, forcing him to come back home. We discover that his mother not just neglected the boy, but that she very well could have hated him; resenting having had him at all in the first place.
The interviewer then asks if he had ever been with a woman, to which Antoine smirks, leading most to believe he knew the lines, but not the questions. He explains that he hadn’t, but had once been taken to a hooker at a hotel. While the connection’s a bit too Pop Freudian, the question does establish the subsequent films, in which Antoine will forever search for the proper woman, sabotaging relationships and opportunities along the way; falling into a pattern of self-destruction, culminating with Love on the Run (1979).
It’s a film that feels odd to take apart, as each individual piece feels so heavy or generic; the photography or style is not all that unique beyond a historical document; and yet it somehow all adds up into an absolutely wonderful film that is fully deserving of its position as one of the all-time greatest films from mid-century world cinema.
BELOW: Arguably one of the most iconic closing images in world cinema history
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