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The 400 Blows  

The 400 Blows is Francois Truffaut`s very first film, produced in 1959. He was also the director of Jules and Jim, an equally famous film which strangely didn`t affect me as much as I had hoped. The 400 Blows, however, is a true classic, simple yet perceptive, and even-handed in its depiction of the burdens of its main character, Antoine Doniel.


Antoine is a thirteen year old student in a French boys school, and he is looked upon as a problem student and a troublemaker. From writing derisive graffiti on the class wall, to plagiarising Balzac, he is the source of constant frustration for his teacher, and also his parents, who clearly do not give him the attention and love needed for a child his age. He is the sort of child I natuarally cannot respect a great deal, since he is the sort, abiet in more innocent, less vicious fashion, who rebels and acts out for the mere sake of it, rather than making a point. Even people who could treat him well would not see anything noble in his actions. He does a lot of things to try to gain sympathy, but they are the wrong things. This includes a rather bold moment where, after having skipped a day of school for some fun, he actually tells his teacher that his mother had died. What is even more surprising is that the teacher, a mean, stern, individual, actually appears to believe him and take pity. These scenes are dark-humored; it is clear that few people aren`t very nice to him, but at the same time, it is almost funny to see this kid try to get away with so many outrageous things. It helps that the actor, Jean-Pierre Leaud, looks completly like a smart-alecky kid, and feels so comfortable inside his character.
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It is not until the second half when the film reveals its powerful, sorrowful tone. Antoine, along with a friend, steal a typewriter from his father`s workplace. Unable to sell it, Antoine dares to sneak back in and put the typewriter back in its proper place. But he is caught this time, and the result is that the authorities, with the unfortunate acceptance of his parents, make him go to a juvenile delinquent hall, and, when that fails, a labour camp. Watching this, I got the feeling these places aren`t designed to help problem kids, but rather are dumping grounds for the unwanted. Listen to the testimonials of the other inhabitants: you can perceive that these kids are relatively harmless, and are basically reacting to an unfair world. The unfair world is annoyed by these invasions into their selfish lives, and that world has the power to brush them aside. While I certainly don`t have any real respect for Antoine`s doings, and there is nothing romantic or satisfying in this so-called teenage rebellion, the ultimate fate of this kid is nothing to be proud of. And that is the power of the film, for we are able to be sympathetic to him, even after knowing he is a brat. You will have no choice but to feel sorry for him, especially when you see the sorry cases surrounding him.

The teacher who supervises his class is a nervous, cruel, and unsympathetic individual. Either this man should be fired or take a voluntary leave of absence for his completely shot nerves. He treats the students like prisoners, as he throws chalk about the room demanding to know who whistled in class, as he tells Antoine to wipe off the graffiti properly or else will be forced to lick it off, and, finally, tells the class "I`ve known idiots, but at least they were discreet." and bemoans the sorry state of France.

His parents are seen as incredibly selfish. Antoine hears many arguments at night from the parents, mainly on how Antoine gets on the mother's nerves. This isn`t a reasoned argument, but rather words from people who sound as if they are truly burdened with a child, so much so that they`d be much happier if it was rid of. The mother, with her furious, almost guttural, voice, is the worst of the pair, and it's no surprise when you discover she also conducts a bit of extramarital affairs, and actually tells Antoine how useless school is. This might actually give a psychological reason for saying to his teacher that day that his mother had died. Deep down, he resents her.

And his situation in the deliquent school is probably even more horrifying. A couple of moments are difficult to forget, especially a shocking moment where Antoine is slapped for being a bit too eager to eat his dinner. The way this scene is played out is even more surprising, especially for a person living in this decade, where such things would naturally be considered child abuse. Here, however, it appears society thought it was the best thing to do for unruly kids.

And the final image of this film is brilliant and sad, as Antoine hopes dearly for something better than the world he has been thrown into, and realizes that hope is all that it is going to be. It is a fitting finale to a dramatic film. In fact, the film itself is so complete that it`s very strange to know that Truffaut made four sequels to this film, which, from what I heard, seem to be more on the romantic comedy/drama side. But it makes no difference if you ever decide to see them, for The 400 Blows will still stand as one of cinema`s great moments.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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