In dedicating The 400 Blows to Andre Bazin, François Truffaut establishes himself as a student of cinema and as an artist with an intellectual’s mind. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that The 400 Blows has solidified its position in film history by kickstarting the French New Wave. Yet, even when removed from this contextual significance, what really distinguishes The 400 Blows is its immensely personal, intimate nature, functioning as both an autobiography of its director and as an exploration into the spirit of adolescence.
Based on Truffaut’s own childhood, The 400 Blows is the story of Antoine, a young boy whose innocence and generally sweet nature are insufficient to shield him from the ire of his parents and teachers as Antoine’s mischief is mistaken for genuine malice at every turn. Fundamentally, this is a film about the desire to escape. Antoine dreams of escaping his claustrophobic home life—where his mother and father squabble endlessly and seem to take no responsibility for his behaviour. Both Antoine and his best friend, Rene, also dream of escaping their school, where their authoritarian teacher shows little sensitivity to the boys.
These dreams of escape initially lead to the boys forging doctor’s notes so that they can scurry around Paris, then escalate somewhat as Antoine hides out first in Rene’s home, then in an abandoned factory. Eventually Antoine attempts to steal and sell a typewriter but a disastrous encounter with a fencer and a botched attempt to return it only lands Antoine in hotter water.The film’s third act largely involves Antoine’s experiences in a young offenders institution, where the question of Antoine’s future really starts to hang heavy over the film. No longer is this the story of a cheeky Parisian scamp, instead we begin to wonder if Antoine is destined to live the life of a criminal. The film’s ending, which I won’t spoil here, is absolutely breathtaking and serves as a monumental testament to the resolve of the human spirit.
Jean Pierre-Lenaud deserves enormous credit for his ability to embody Truffaut’s onscreen alter-ego, bringing a naturalism to the character that anchors the entire film. In scenes such as Antoine’s questioning by the institution psychologist, Pierre-Lenaud expresses as much with a smirk or a downturned glance than most actors could with a monologue. His soulful eyes seem to be endlessly questioning—so expressive and pure that it seems that each injustice inflicted upon him is more comparable to an assault on a wounded animal. Perhaps it is the film’s autobiographical nature that allows Truffaut to ground us in Antoine’s shoes with such expertise.
Admittedly, later films in the French New Wave might feature elements that are more impressive on a technical level. Godard’s Breathless, for example, drew attention for its unique style of editing and exciting yet often jarring use of jump cuts. But, in choosing to explore material from a personal source, Truffaut taps into the heart of the human condition. 56 years later and The 400 Blows remains as timely and as touching as it ever was.