Movie of the Week 5/5/14: The 400 Blows

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Perhaps my most telling moment of watching 400 Blows came during the opening credits and thought that the camera was tilted upward to capture the perspective of a child… a thought I immediately felt obnoxious and pretentious for having. While that is a perfectly valid interpretation of the shot, my impulsive dismissal of that interpretation probably comes from my prejudice against the French New Wave as being a movement full of pseudo-intellectual, loosely structured sequences with little direct narrative. But by the end, 400 Blows surprised me in not just being a solidly-structured narrative but also a great, authentic (if bitter) exploration of a broken and desperate childhood,

Even more surprisingly, 400 Blows reminded me of Stand By Me in terms of being an honest look at the lives of independent children from unstable homes. It’s built on the sort of vignette-y narrative style you’d expect from the French New Wave but unlike many film school copycats it still has a well-paced three-act structure underneath it that provides a strong base that allows all the vignettes to build on each other and paint a full picture of Antoine Doinel’s childhood and the gradual progression of his adolescence.

Truffaut paints a very recognizable (whether you grew up like this or not) picture of a boy struggling to make his way through childhood while beset on all sides by forces with no respect for where he is in life. His teacher and his mother both seem to resent him for very different reasons, a potentially toxic combination that certainly drive him towards his rebellious behavior. Every time he tries to act creative or independent he is rebuffed for it, which only drives him towards further acting out. And while his stepfather tries his best, the fact that he’s not Antoine’s real father provides enough distance to make his support insufficient, and leads Antoine to steal from his stepfather’s office and undercut the one reasonable relationship with an adult he has.

The saving grace for Antoine is his friend Rene, who supports him and helps him as he continuously tries to escape these environments that have no sympathy for him. In fact, when Antoine is hiding in Rene’s home, it seems to be the safest place for him, where he can be himself without fear of outright retribution. Bringing it back to the Stand By Me connection, it perfectly captures that feeling when you’re young that your friends are your true companions that you can rely on. And while unlike that ‘80s classic, Truffaut’s movie is much more morose, almost Dickensian, but at its core is a level of sentimentality about coming of age, about the idea of trying to stand on your own as you realize you can’t always count on the people you expect to. It’s something that could be absolutely heartbreaking, but by the end I was rooting for Antoine to escape that world that you’d normally want him to be part of, so that he can find his way to where he really belongs.

So now that I’ve rambled enough, I’m gonna turn this over to someone who really knows what she’s talking about here, for Shiran’s reaction:

I think The 400 Blows is a great introduction to Truffaut, so I’m happy Brendan responded to it the way he did. It shows off the director’s skill level and playfulness, but more than that it’s a perfect look at Truffaut’s empathy and sincerity. I love the whole movie, but my two favorite scenes speak to that aspect especially. Around the middle of the movie, Antoine gets in to trouble for plagiarizing Balzac in a personal essay, but with the child’s obsession with Balzac, Truffaut makes it clear that expressing his love for the writer really is a very personal expression on Antoine’s part. It establishes a striking level of sensitivity for the young character, which makes the later scene of him being shoved and passed around through the process of the prison even more visceral. We’ve seen the incredible range of emotion Antoine is capable of, and have come to care for him not just as a child, but a young human being with complex thoughts and feelings. That makes his rough, neglectful treatment he receives more painful and affecting, and his escape is far more liberating for it.

Once again, I have absolutely no idea what to show Shiran this week, so I’m just as anxious as you to find out. Stay with us!

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