Directed by: François Truffaut Written by: Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
Historically the concept of the child did not always exist everywhere. Children were seen as little adults, and treated as such as much as physically possible. They were castigated, overworked, and at times executed. Such cruelty is a key characteristic of Dickensian fiction.
My first instinct upon seeing Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, a story of childhood and punishment was to describe it as a Dickensian work: albeit a less harsh one. I soon came to realize, however, that such a desciptor, without appropriate nuance, fails to capture what makes The 400 Blows so engaging. The film is not Dickensian: rather, it depicts an evolutionary link between Dickensian times and the present.
Loosely based on the adolescent experience of writer-director François Truffaut, The 400 Blows tells the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) a pre-teen boy with a penchant for mischief. Antoine’s teacher (Guy Decomble) is strict and derogatory and employs corporal punishment. His mother (Claire Maurier) seems to regret his existence, while his father (Albert Rémy) is affectionate but not beyond period-strictness, issuing some of the 400 blows himself.
There are strong grounds to describe The 400 Blows as a realist work. It is aesthetically striking, as are many black and white works seen through contemporary eyes, yet it also embraces the limits on the beauty of black and white film. In a scene in which Antonie skips school he is seen spinning around on a carnival ride. The spinning piece of metal is about as plain-industrial as it gets. It’s as if this scene is saying: there is no truly magical space to escape to, hard as Antoine may try.
The film is also realistic when it comes to character development. Antoine’s teacher is no one I’d want teaching me, but he’s no Dickensian villain either. His parents have a combination of pleasant and unpleasant traits. Antoine, most importantly, is not innocent. He does commit petty wrong. The 400 Blows thematic success, however, comes through in that it makes plain to viewers that they should sympathize with over-disciplined children even when they are not little angels.
Finally, the film’s ending contributes to its realist air. Without being specific, I’ll say it’s a non-ending ending, one that reminds us that in real-life, over-punished children are not subjects of Dickensian misery waiting to be saved by Mr. Brownlow’s, but rather subjects of a subtler injustice that they will simply have to escape with age. The film’s may very well have influenced one of my favourite recent film, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. There is a tonal difference, however, in that Truffaut’s work and ending reinforces his realism, whereas Baker’s tows the line between gritty and magical-realism (is this difference largely the result of shooting in black and white vs color, you be the judge?).
It would be inaccurate to entirely label The 400 Blows’ affect as realism driven. Another key part of the film’s aesthetic is shots that feature a crisp images of characters’ heads with little in the way of background. These shots reinforce the fact that this is a film with relatively few characters, and with the exception perhaps of Antonie’s friend René (Patrick Auffay), the characters are stand ins for ideas: the troubled boy, the strict teacher, and unprotective parents.
The 400 Blows manages to be a number of things at once, and that is why it is so satisfying despite being a simple, some might say incomplete, story. Antoine is both an everyboy and a well defined character (as illustrated in the scenes when he gets to talk about himself). It is a film about human coldness that nonetheless maintains a constant airs of mundanity and escapism. It is a film that can be widely enjoyed, just maybe don’t show it to those you don’t want to set a bad example for: you don’t want your preteen to go around stealing typewriters!