The 400 Blows is a hummingbird film, tiny and feather-light, capable of beating its wings a thousand times a minute, gravity-defying. Nectar its only food, its bright feathers shimmer metallic in the sun. It is also an owl film, solemn, unblinking and brooding, hooting stern nocturnal inquisitives, fully capable of 360° swivels of its ruffled head. It isn’t until you are done with it, lulled by its charmed insignificance, that rough significance clasps you in its claws
But never mind that. Here we trod a path well-trod, pondering Truffaut’s first masterpiece, one of the opening salvos of the French New-Wave. It’s in the canon. The film-school thesii which have been written upon it are legion – they have been shot down by sneering professors like buffalo from railroad cars – so rather than try to take it apart and see what the organs look like, mayhap it would be wise for me to simply admit that when it comes to Truffaut in particular, and the French New-Wave in general, I could not be more gravid with ignorance. This is my initiation into that particular movement in film history. Clearly, I'm lacking. Get me a striped shirt and a beret, pronto – and coffee, black. Pronto, garcon, pronto! Show some hustle.
Anyway, going in, I had no idea what to expect. Boxing movie? Puppet-porn? Black-and-white still-shots commenting on the commentary of commentators, mad dadaists deconstructing deconstruction itself until even Derrida yells ‘uncle’? Beats me, brother. I just planned to sit on the bean-bag chair and take it all in.
This, it turns out, is the story of a childhood, which is to say that it is a comedy about inhumanity. The childhood in question belongs to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a good kid in a bad place. It is the adults in his life who have made the place bad, and it is they who pervert their own estimation of him, making him out to be a bad kid in a good place. His mother (Claire Maurier) couldn care less about either him or his father (Albert Rémy), whose own deep disinterest in the boy can, at first, be mistaken for kindness. His teacher employs rigid mental contortions, the better to see all the boys, and Antoine in particular, in the worst light possible. Our lad is a scamp, sure, but these adults never give him a shot. They throw the boy into mud and then damn him for the footprints he tracks onto their carpet.
The title in the original French (Les Quatre Cents Coups) is a French idiom for “raising hell” (or so the internet tells me). What’s surprising, or perhaps telling, then, is how little hell gets raised. Antoine’s disobediences – cutting class, running away from home, petty theft – are pretty tame, a reaction against the conditions in which he is raised, not a condition of his moral decay. He pays the penalty for crimes committed by the whole classroom. A supposed instance of plagiarism stems from his love of Balzac, not from laziness. He gets in the most trouble not for theft of an object, but in a foolhardy attempt to return it. He makes poor decisions. He has bad luck. He is a fourteen-year old boy, in other words.
None of this is as fraught as it seems while you watch it. The arc is not immediately evident; this seems like a casual series of events, not a cause-and-effect storyline. The film has plenty of humor, most of which stems from our recognition of the hypocrisy of the adult world and our identification with the rebellion of the youthful sphere, particularly in a passage with a gym instructor and his rapidly diminishing line of students. Léaud gives an amazing performance, one of the most natural by a child actor that I’ve seen (up there with Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun and Haley J. Osment in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and, of course, the immortal body of work left for us by the late, great Macauley) , and Truffaut’s camera is happy to simply watch it, loping along with Antoine as he runs down a country road, or peeking down an alley while he drinks stolen milk. When, near the end of the film. Antoine’s mother gives us a piece of crucial information, one that makes us reassess most of the main relationships, it comes as an off-hand aside. Truffaut rewards attention spans with generous detail of character.
Yet at times he seems to be cheating with his horrid, horrid, all-too-horrid adults. My shady sources inform me that Antoine’s life roughly parallels that of a young Truffaut, and the film has a teenager’s ruffled sense of personal outrage, an bruised adolescent cataloging all the wrongs done, real and imagined. But the final images, including the celebrated closing shot, will haunt you – they force confrontation with our own misgivings regarding our hero’s final fate.