Restless Youth: The 400 Blows

Adelaide Powell - October 6, 2016

The 400 Blows follows a young teenager, Antoine Doinel, a stand-in for François Truffaut, in 1950s Paris. As the film begins with discontinuously edited tracking shots of Paris, showcasing a view of the city as if from a car or trolley, this display of seemingly endless buildings and streets is immediately juxtaposed with the first real scene, which takes place in a claustrophobic schoolroom. We empathize with Antoine's restlessness and discomfort at school; we too long for escape.

François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) is a movie about and for youth. As one of the first and most significant of the French New Wave films, The 400 Blows marked a grand departure from traditional, pre-war French cinema; its spontaneous look, sexy themes, young director and 'honest' style made it a film for a new generation. The French were ready for a different kind of cinema: critics and average moviegoers alike craved a fresher, innovative style. The film's dedication to monumental film critic André Bazin suggests that The 400 Blows had been created in large part due to the pioneering new ideas of Bazin. The film was most prominently exhibited and viewed in Paris, but garnered an international following as it racked up award nominations at Cannes and the Academy Awards.

Viewed today, The 400 Blows' originality is still evident, but its eminence mostly lies in the innovative techniques and subject matter that made the film novel in its time. The 400 Blows displays a kind of psychological realism, and it has some naturalistic aspects, but is mostly set on illustrating why characters behave the way they do, what motivates them, and how their circumstances and surroundings inter-play with their feelings and interactions with other characters.

The 400 Blows follows a young teenager, Antoine Doinel, a stand-in for François Truffaut, in 1950s Paris. The film begins with discontinuously edited tracking shots of Paris, showcasing a view of the city as if from a car or trolley. This display of a seemingly endless array of buildings and streets is immediately contrasted by the first real scene, which takes place in a claustrophobic schoolroom. We empathize with Antoine's restlessness and discomfort at school; we too long for escape, which is an effect of the early juxtaposition of open city and stuffy classroom.

The mundane and ugly aspects of family life that traditional film tended to side step are brought to the forefront in scenes of domestic unhappiness. We watch Antoine come home from school to his cluttered, worn-down apartment and see him perform a few chores, go into his mother's dressing room, smell her perfume, use her hair brush, play with her eyelash curler, and start to do his homework; when Antoine's mother comes home from work, she takes off her stockings, reprimands Antoine for forgetting to buy flour, and appears exhausted. The honesty of the camera in illustrating their everyday life and allowing us to peer into the inner-sanctum of their private space becomes uncomfortable as a viewer, but also brings us closer to Antoine, since we come to better understand the context for why he behaves as he does. This is exacerbated when Antoine skips school (and sees his mother kissing another man while he is out palling around with his friend), tells the teacher he was absent because his mother died, gets caught in the lie, is slapped by his father, and decides to run away from home.

The narrative structure strings together vignettes of Antoine's rebellious trial and error with a child-like, restless, directionless energy, but aside from the fervor of their combination, the scenes have little in common. The story is told chronologically, but is not built around exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Often shots, such as the opening city montage, appear as if they were filmed on a hand-held camera, which relates the spontaneous sense of the narrative to the energetic, uneven temperament of Antoine. Likewise, the use of jump cuts also reflects a break away from traditional, completely linear narratives.

In addition to technical innovations, the meta-commentary of The 400 Blows also echoes the French New Wave's rebellious opposition to "le cinéma de papa". One of the few happy moments Antoine has with his family is when they go to the movies it's also one of the few things Antoine enjoys doing regularly. Later, Antoine goes to a puppet show with his friend René in a scene that again finds him watching a performance and escaping his obligations. These episodes highlight anxieties common both to Antoine and this new generation of directors, how both are caught between oppositions: from childhood to adulthood, from apathetic observer to active participant.

The ending scene, and in particular the final shot of the film, have gone down in movie history for their distinctiveness and creativity. A long, uncut tracking shot follows Antoine as he runs away from the juvenile detention center (where he was sent for stealing the typewriter) towards an unknown destination. The camera follows Antoine and constantly keeps him in the middle of the shot, which has the effect of displaying motion while producing the feeling of stagnation; it is as if Antoine is running in place. The effect is further enhanced by the lack of any music or score, the silence punctured only by his falling footsteps. This recurring theme of constant movement without progress is evident here and throughout the film with Antoine's rebellious behavior (for no apparent reason) that gets him nowhere.

Antoine ultimately reaches the ocean, fulfilling an earlier goal of seeing the shore one day, but once he arrives his feelings are difficult to decipher. When he finally stops at the edge of the water, he turns toward the camera and gazes directly at the viewer. The shot freezes on Antoine and zooms in on his face, an unsettling image that has become less surprising to see at the end of a film, as so many directors have paid homage to Truffaut and found inspiration in the haunting visual of a character confronting the audience. Antoine's disposition is hard to read in the freeze-frame close-up; he looks scared, confrontational, and confused all at once. It is as if he has taken the image, and now has some power by facing the viewer. He has broken away from being observed at the detention center and has become the observer, a final rebellious act. However, the end shot also makes Antoine appear to be stuck on screen, trapped by his circumstances and lack of options - he has no place left to run.

Adelaide Powell

Adelaide Powell is a freshman studying communications and film. In addition to writing for The Moviegoer and being part of the Penn Cinema Initiative, Adelaide works at the Kelly Writers House and writes for the Daily Pennsylvanian. Prior to coming to Philadelphia, she lived in Copenhagen, Denmark and has moved around frequently. Besides traveling, Adelaide enjoys reading, writing, eating good food, and of course watching movies. Some of her favorite films are Charade, Slumdog Millionaire, Midnight in Paris, and Six Degrees of Separation.