On Friday, TCM honored French filmmaker François Truffaut in their Friday Night Spotlight lineup, so I camped out on the couch with a frozen pizza and some blankets to watch Les quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows), Truffaut’s first feature.
The 400 Blows is the first of Truffaut’s films centering around Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose life in this film mirrors the real life struggles of François Truffaut. Like Doinel, Truffaut was born out of wedlock but accepted as a son by the man his mother soon married. His childhood was troubled, as shown by the life of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows. So brutally honest that his parents were hurt by the film (Truffaut defended his portrayal of his childhood, which he told them really was that unhappy), The 400 Blows is a touching story about growing up, touched with incredible insight and personal experience.
Antoine grows up in a cramped apartment with his mother (who really doesn’t seem to like her son very much) and stepfather, where he always seems to be unwanted and in the way, or else left completely alone. Misunderstood and mistreated by his callous and largely uncaring parents, Antoine engages in a life of petty crime and juvenile delinquency, eventually leading to his arrest for the theft of a typewriter. He is sent to an observation center for troubled youth, where, at the end of the film, he escapes and runs to the nearby sea.
In the famous final scene of The 400 Blows, we see Antoine Doinel standing on the shore and seeing the ocean–something he dreamed of all his life–for the first time. In literature, art, film and elsewhere, the ocean can often be a symbol of hope and renewal. As the final frame freezes on young Antoine, at the brink of the sea, my thoughts were that there is hope for him. Children are in the vulnerable position to be molded–for better or for worse–by their environment (which includes parents, who probably have more power than anyone in shaping the adults that we become). But as they mature, they have the opportunity to free themselves from their past, or from oppressive environments. That hope seems to exist for tender, movie-loving Antoine, who, as a maturing boy, has choices he can make to determine his own future.
Antoine’s real-life counterpart François Truffaut did just that, becoming one of Europe’s most celebrated filmmakers and a huge influence on the New Wave movement through his passion for and dedication to film. Movies became a kind of schooling for the future filmmaker, who, as a young’un, set goals for himself to watch more movies and to read more books. The 400 Blows, with its depth, sincerity, and honesty, shows that Truffaut’s dedication to cinema paid off. Henri Decae’s cinematography and the young talent of Jean-Pierre Léaud add to the impact of Truffaut’s touching debut feature.
After finishing The 400 Blows, I was already deeply attached to the character of Antoine Doinel, and wanted to see more of him, as well as learn more about the life of François Truffaut. I can’t wait to watch Truffaut’s other movies about Antoine (Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love on the Run), as well as more of Truffaut’s films in general. Shoutout to my fellow Moviefellas writer Miranda for letting me know this was on TCM!