Truffaut and Godard stand as the two geniuses of The French New Wave, something I am sure I mentioned during my old review of Jules and Jim. I am constantly reminded upon viewing either of their earlier works about how brilliant both filmmakers were during their youth. Their style and narrative format have become resonant in the world of cinema since their introduction and both deserve equal praise. However, the more work I see from the two directors, the more I realize that the two work in completely different spectrum of filmmaking. Godard was clearly concerned with expanding the conventions of cinema from a visual standpoint, while Truffaut found more in rethinking narrative normalcy. Both excelled in their respective pursuits, we see this with Breathless and we certainly see this with The 400 Blows. Truffaut's film on a very basic level is about a kid rebelling against his parents; however, it is something much larger than that and what unfolds is a piece of film that is profound, earnest and individually its own. Alongside introducing the world to the cinematic figure that is Antoine Doinel, Truffaut's film reminds viewers that in order to love a movie the characters and their experiences need not be dramatic but instead beautifully simple.
As noted above, The 400 Blows focuses on the experiences of a young boy named Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) as he wanders aimlessly between home and school in an unspecified section of Paris. Clearly, indifferent to authority figures, Doinel defies his schoolteachers and mother on countless occasions, brushing of their physical attacks and acidic remarks with little care or concern. In fact, Doinel is lacks such a concern for socially accepted behavior that he foolishly agrees to skip school, catching his mother having an affair with another man in the process. It is at this point that the young boy's life begins to deteriorate. Doinel becomes a point of vilification to some of the students who see him as a bully, while he becomes the prime suspect for all wrongdoing both at home and at school. Doinel's behavior and lack of respect become so egregious that he is kicked out of school and subsequently avoids returning home. Saddened by the loss of her son, Doinel's mother agrees to be kinder to him upon his return home. This promise only lasts temporarily when Doinel returns to his bad behavior quite quickly, causing his mother and stepfather to become so aggravated with the boy that they ship him off to a reformatory. Once again, Doinel's wily ways result in him being punished regularly and quite violently by the headmasters. During a game of soccer, Doinel, pushed to the edge, pretends to retrieve a ball only to begin running for escape from the reformatory. After successfully evading those chasing him, Doinel is shown running along the ocean and as he reaches the coast, he stops to look into the camera. This occurrence breaks the fourth wall, thus reminding viewers that the young boy's story is now theirs as well.
Perhaps the division between Godard and Truffaut is not entirely one of visual over narrative concerns. I would also argue that their basic assumptions of what it means to portray reality on film are decidedly opposing. For Godard reality is a series of fabricated moments in which individuals engage in their own self-interests and often interact with one another in very hostile, if not violent, ways. While the world of Truffaut is certainly hostile, particularly in a work like Shoot The Piano Player, it can be argued that at least one character within each of his films desires to affect change. It is clear that Doinel's rebellion is problematic; however, what he is rebelling against is certainly justifiable. In the world of The 400 Blows children are to be obedient and unquestioning in their actions while adults possess free reign over everything. However, Doinel understand the absurdity of such logic, which is finally solidified when he catches his mother in an act of infidelity, the consequences of which is an explosive realization that adult sensibilities are a lie. Ultimately, Doinel's tale is one of a child becoming disillusioned at far too young of an age to affect change positively. Although I have yet to see Truffaut's other films involving Doinel, I can imagine his character struggles with ethics throughout them, and who can blame him considering the lack of proper teaching directed at him. It could be said that Truffaut's film criticizes French, particularly Parisian, society for their misguided attempts at social values and its over arching affects on youth. Fortunately, Truffaut would go on to deal with this issue much more thoughtfully in Small Change, a film which reminds viewers that children are to be dealt with sternly and reminded of the tragic world they exist in, yet it is also important to foster their creativity and allow them to maintain a decent amount of imagination.
The 400 Blows is easily one of the most important films ever made. It is referenced alongside films like Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai, and deservedly so. Owning a copy should be obvious, particularly considering the recent Bluray upgrade from Criterion.