The 400 Blows Isn’t A Typical Artsy Fartsy French Movie

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DVD cover art for The 400 Blows (1959)
The 400 Blows (1959)

The other night, I had Turner Classic Movie (TCM) channel on. It started to show Francois Truffaut’s "The 400 Blows" (1959). Film buff friends of mine have waxed poetically about all the French New Wave directors like Truffaut and until now I had avoided them all. I just thought that these "great" movies were 90 minutes of French people sitting around drinking coffee and smoking – and that’s it. The film started and I promised to turn the channel when I got bored. 99 minutes later I realized I did watch a great film. The 400 Blows isn’t a typical artsy fartsy French film.

*May contain SPOILERS*

The great Angie Dickinson was doing a Guest Programmer segment with TCM host Robert Osborne and The 400 Blows (1959) was one of the films she presented that night. She could recommend a phone book and I would at least it check out.

Jean-Pierre Léaud plays Antoine Doinel a teen boy just trying to navigate his life the best he thinks he can. He gets little help or guidance from the adults in his life.

The film starts with Antoine getting in trouble in his French class when he is caught with a picture of a scantily clad woman that was being passed around the class. His teacher – known as “Sourpuss” to the students – makes Antoine stand in the corner than forces him to miss recess. Antoine acts out by writing a slam against the teacher on the classroom wall. The teacher is not amused. “Sourpuss” is nasty to all the boys in the class calling them morons and fearing for the future of France.

At home, Antoine is not much better off. His mother is always yelling at him and his father doesn’t defend him. The parents both come off as being indifferent to Antoine as if he were cramping their style. One scene early in the film has the parents discussing what do with the boy during the summer and the mother suggesting sending him to summer camp.

The family lives in a dingy tiny apartment. Antoine’s “room” is the foyer next to the kitchen and he sleeps basically on a couch. The family isn’t desperately poor but it is obvious from Antoine’s well worn night shirt they don’t spend much money on their child.

Antoine isn’t violent, abusive, abused, or hooked on drugs. If there is a word to describe Antoine it would be impetuous. He just does what he wants without considering the consequences. In one scene, the day after he skipped school, his teacher, “Sourpuss”, asks for an excuse and so the boy lies that his mother died. The excuse gets the teacher off his back for the time being. The school finds out the truth and his parents show up with his father slapping him in the face for disrespecting his mother. That is the only scene where Antoine is hit by his parents.

Like I said the adults in his life aren’t giving him any guidance to adulthood. They all get exasperated that he isn’t a fully formed adult at 12. The parents try to “solve” the problem in different ways but Antoine still does the wrong things, or lies, and gets in trouble. They are oblivious as to why he continues to make poor choices.

The turning point in the plot is when Antoine and his best bud René, played by Patrick Auffay, decide to go to Mr. Doinel’s office and Antoine steals a typewriter. Their intent is to sell the machine for spending money. They eventually lose their nerve and Antoine tries to put the typewriter back but gets caught. His father marches him straight to the police station and Antoine spends the night with common thieves and prostitutes – I guess to teach him a lesson.

Antoine’s parents are fed up and give him up to the state and he is sent to a reform school near the coast.

There are two scenes toward the end that made me realize how good the film was. The first has Antoine talking to probably a psychologist at the reform school and he was asked various questions. We also find out he knows about a family secret involving his parentage

You get an insight about the character and it matches what we have seen through out the movie. He is not a bad kid or someone who is not redeemable. He is just a normal teenager who is missing the love and guidance from his parents. He rightly feels lost and believes the lack of love is his fault due to how he came into the world. It all makes sense.

screencap of Claire Maurier in The 400 Blows (1959)
Antoine’s Mom, played by the great Claire Maurier, giving him the kiss off.

A following scene has the mother arriving alone at the school to visit Antoine. She came alone and she tells her son not expect his father. It seems Antoine had sent his father a letter letting him know he knew the family secret and instead of helping bringing the family closer together, the letter pissed off the father and the mother. She tells Antoine they were thinking of taking back home but because they believe the neighbors know their dirty laundry they changed their minds.

OUCH!!!

The parents are more concerned about the neighbors knowing they are crappy parents then about the well being of their child and so they throw Antoine under a bus.

Films don’t normally elicit a strong emotional response from me but the mother’s kiss off scene made me VERY angry. I think I even cussed her out.

Any film that can connect with the viewer emotionally is a great film and Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” is a great movie.

My verdict on the French New Wave is still out but I got a good introduction and the bar is set pretty high.

The 400 Blows (1959) – Trailer
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