The 400 Blows
Directed by Francois Truffaut
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Patrick Auffey, Guy Decolmbe
As a French New Wave film, The 400 Blows commands worship and reverence simply for existing. Nothing before or since the movement matters as much as Truffaut’s seminal work. Upon the film’s debut at Cannes, Charlie Chaplin committed honorable suicide, Cecil B. DeMille torched Old Hollywood’s silent-film library, and Martin Scorcese leapt in the womb. Actors across the world rended their garments, agonized that their trade and craft had been rendered useless. Ted Turner created Turner Classic Movies specifically so that a television channel could air this Gospel 24/7 to the uncultured masses. Antoine Dionel, the lead character, is the messiah and prophet of “The Blowhards,” the zealous religion founded immediately after the credits rolled. The highest members of The Blowhards remain in the original theater, still clapping after first seeing the film 65 years ago.
…I exaggerate, but, some days, it feels like only slightly. Francois Truffaut’s DEBUT as director, The 400 Blows ranks at #50 on Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time. The 400 Blows was nominated for the Palme D’or at Cannes and won Best Director. Martin Scorsese listed the film on his “Essential Foreign Films for a Young Filmmaker’ collection. The British Film Institute put The 400 Blows in the top 10 of their list, “Films Every Person Should See before the Age of 15.” Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, Richard Linklater, and Wes Anderson list The 400 Blows among their favorite films, with Kurosawa proclaiming it as, “One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.”
The 400 Blows holds a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.1/10 on IMDb, making it IMDb’s 246th highest-rated movie.
A year ago, Sight & Sound released a controversial edition of their list of “The Greatest Movies of All Time.” Putting The 400 Blows on such a list is the opposite of “a hot take,” so I initially planned to review it back in January. My health got a little rocky, so I pushed it to my “April in Paris” theme. Once April arrived, I realized that I had reviewed five French films in three months. I didn’t need a Parisian-themed addition to the repertoire. Aforementioned health issues also delayed my Black History Month picks, so I reviewed those under my new theme, April NOT in Paris.
Many films that I’ve watched this year are either leftovers from other themes or in reaction to reader engagement of those themes. Therefore, this month’s collection is…
Antoine Doinel is in early adolescence and attends a strict grammar school in the heart of Paris. Though he tries, in his own way, to do well at school, he often causes trouble or is truant, much to his mother’s dismay. To cover for his absence, Antoine invents increasingly ludicrous stories, eventually telling the school that his mother died.
Exasperated, Antoine’s mother tries to connect with her son before he begins making unfixable mistakes. From the narrator’s perspective, though, Antoine’s delinquency consists of cute misadventures, leading the audience to question what hell this boy is supposedly raising. Such boyish mischief gets serious fast, however, when Antoine plots to steal a possession of his stepfather’s. As such, Ms. Doinel feels the only thing that will tame her unruly child is a psychological home for troubled boys.
Only subtly explored before, the source of Antoine’s misbehavior now must be addressed head-on. Here, we see that Antoine has simple dreams in the face of a horrifying, selfish upbringing. He’s been neglected, discarded, and profiled during much of his youth, and he bears the mental and emotional scars of his parents’ cruel indifference and self-absorption.
Most concerning of all is the box in which Antoine has been put. Previously content with fun and frivolity, Antoine is now surrounded by REAL problem children. His mother has all but disowned him, and society has told him he’s no good. An unsettling freeze frame at the end shows Antoine as a child who’s quite capable of raising ACTUAL hell now.
It’s good. B+. Well done, Truffaut.
Unlike last week’s review, I’m delighted to damn this movie with faint praise. Neither Truffaut nor his team are the source of that pleasure, though. Rather, stuffy critics, film academics, and curmudgeonly directors are the people who bring me schadenfreude.
While The 400 Blows is singular, that hasn’t stopped generations of filmmakers from trying to copy it. While some movies, like Boyz ‘n the Hood, have taken The 400 Blows‘ ideas and pushed them forward, I’ve seen far too many movies that feature a man-child or emotionally stunted jerk who blames society or his parents or his latchkey upbringing for his abominable behavior–usually towards women. These films forget that the worst thing Antoine Doinel did was ATTEMPT to steal his stepdad’s typewriter, an act he regretted.
Separately, I feel that many notable directors who admire The 400 Blows (Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson especially) too often create male characters that lean into the attitude of “My parents didn’t love me enough, so my poor behavior–especially towards women–isn’t my fault.”
Nowhere is this attitude more apparent than in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the only movie to score 100/100 on Metacritic…
All this and more can be found in Boyhood! (We’ll even throw in a legitimately marvelous performance from Patricia Arquette as well as reliably solid work from Ethan Hawke.)
I understand why many film historians and notable filmmakers consider The 400 Blows valuable. It flew directly in the face of the dying studio system, with its near-first-person point of view and vulnerable, autobiographical storytelling.
That does not mean, however, that The 400 Blows deserves its continued status as the best coming-of-age film ever made. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for instance, ranks highly on many of the same lists as The 400 Blows. Ask any Disney fan, however, and they’ll give you at least seven movies greater and more enjoyable in the animation studio’s catalog.
Movies like Stand by Me, The Hate U Give, or Lady Bird each owe a debt to The 400 Blows and its foundational contribution to the coming-of-age drama–yet I’d eagerly pick any of those films to watch over The 400 Blows if given the option. Again, I agree that The 400 Blows is an important, valuable movie–I just don’t think it’s the best at what it does anymore.
Finally, much of the continued praise for The 400 Blows come from academics who praise its “pure, cinematic language” and the director’s inventive “camera as pen” writing style, called an “écriture”–as if no screenwriter or producer had even thought to write about their own life before Truffaut had dared.
This tack suggests that no one else is involved in making a film–as if the actors were meat puppets whose costumes, sets, and lighting magically appear from the filmmaker’s will. Yes, the director of a film is an artist, and the cast and crew follow their vision, but it’s not as if a director is orchestrating a session of The Sims.
“Oh, you find this movie boring? You’ve seen the ideas implemented elsewhere? Clearly you have no appreciation for cinema and your palette is that of an uncultured swine.”
I (among many others) oftentimes compare film to a drink. The 400 Blows, then, is the alcoholic equivalent of Dom Pérignon Champagne–quite good, sure, but not the best (unless you’re talking vintage) and certainly not worth the price tag.
What’s more, the average person doesn’t want champagne while unwinding after work or taking the family out on the weekend. They will not readily enjoy a 65-year-old, black-and-white, foreign, contemporary realism drama about selfish parents and emotionally neglected and abused children. And that’s okay (so long as one doesn’t start comparing Dom Pérignon to Miller Lite).
My freshman year of college, I attended a creative-writing course which opened with the professor claiming that the students would focus on literary fiction only, as opposed to genre fiction, a branch described to us as “tawdry.” Furthermore, within literary fiction, we were encouraged to submit only “contemporary realism.” Upon review of my portfolio at the end of the semester, my professor warned me to stop letting my cinematic eye look at my fictional work. Upon asking if my professor even watched movies, the response was “rarely.”
Despite that toxic attitude, I learned much from that class. Most importantly, I learned that, when it comes to exclusion, there’s always a smaller group, one which eventually won’t include you.
My point is that standards are important, and cinema is an art form that deserves evaluation and analysis. That attitude is quite different from using established classics to strangle new voices and poo-poo new opinions. Differentiating between the two (however imperfectly) is the reason I started this blog.
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Arsenic and Old Lace
The 400 Blows
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
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