The 400 Blows (1959) – Movie Review

Let me address some common misconceptions about this film: First, it’s not some wretched, artsy-fartsy turd. The movie is actually entertaining in parts and is nowhere near pretentious. And second, the title does not refer the trials of the main character, but rather the fact that François Truffaut had to blow some guy four hundred times in order to get the movie made. That’s right. He performed oral sex on a single gentleman four hundred times. No wonder it’s considered a classic!

Actually, even though this movie is called a classic piece of cinema I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed when after watching it. That’s not to say it isn’t a good movie, in fact it’s pretty good but it’s not exactly deep or mind-blowing in the way other classics like The Bicycle Thief are. So I agree with critic Dan Schneider, who on his site Cosmoetica (which is a cool place that I encourage everyone to check out) says that, “there is not very much else to say about the actual interior film- for it is a picaresque whose vignettes just hang together enough to be an enjoyable viewing experience.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this for the movie succeeds in its realistic portrayal of the working class French even if some of the vignettes aren’t that interesting or go on too long, like one scene taking place at a puppet show entertaining an audience of small children or some of the scenes toward the end when the main character, Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), is arrested.

The movie is pretty much about Antoine, a youth frustrated by school and his parents who don’t know what to do with him. What’s good about the film, as mentioned before, is its dedication to realism. Truffaut avoids Romanticizing the plight of Antoine and instead captures how little troublemakers adolescent boys are. There’s one scene that avoids being cliché. When Antoine’s teacher berates him for plagiarizing his paper the audience knows that Antoine actually did steal and is not actually innocent. Most movies have such a similar scene but it’s usually depicted when the main character is the true author as a way for the film maker to show the character’s “genius” and try to make the audience feel empathy for the wrongfully punished character. But here, Antoine is really thief the teacher accuses him of, yet the audience still feels sympathy for Antoine.

And Truffaut also avoids presenting Antoine as an over-the-top “troubled youth.” In fact, he seems to just resemble his other classmates who also like to raise some hell. In one scene, when the physical education teacher is having the kids run outside, the kids strategically break from the class in groups until only two kids are running alongside the teacher. Even though this scene has nothing to do with the plot it shows that despite the school’s dedication to discipline they have no real control over their students.

Another good scene is when Antoine and his friend ditch school and end up seeing Antoine’s mother cheating on her husband. Instead of Antoine being consumed by angst he is more concerned about whether his mother will tell his step-father that he was playing hooky. It shows that Antoine is a flawed and realistic character and not a caricature.

Family-life is also depicted realistically. There are scenes when the family is fighting amongst themselves (usually because of Antoine) but then moments later are shown laughing and enjoying each other’s company. There isn’t constant bitterness between them and the movie is allowed to show a family in its best and worst lights. As a result, the film is more interesting to watch than something like, say, American Beauty, which shows a family of bickering cardboard cutouts. Even though that piece of shit is clearly a message-movie, The 400 Blows has nothing to sale, or at least it’s not bludgeoning the viewers’ skull with it. The movie is more interested in giving an unbiased look at family life and that is more entertaining to watch stereotypes whose purpose is to push the screenwriter’s shit-message.

And there’s the famed final image of the film where Antoine, after fleeing from a school for a delinquents, runs to the beach and meets the ocean only to face the camera with a look of desperation. I know it sounds trite and overused but the way it’s framed prevents the scene from being so. However, it’s nowhere near as compelling an ending as those from movies like The Weeping Meadow or Crimes and Misdemeanors for it lacks the emotional and intellectual thrust to elevate the image with greater meaning. But it’s still an effective end, and a poetic commentary on the confusion and angst of troubled youth.

One of the tenets of good art is that it doesn’t treat the audience like a bunch dolts by trying hard to manipulate with emotion. So I can say that The 400 Blows, despite being over fifty years old, still holds up today for it addresses universal themes. No one’s going to remember dreck like American Beauty and that movie already seems more dated than The 400 Blows despite it being released in the late-nineties. As Dan Schneider points out in his review the movie isn’t quite as good as most critics claim but it’s still worth checking-out.

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