The 400 Blows is a semi-biographical film based on the childhood of its writer/director Francois Truffaut, a former film critic who with this, his debut feature, helped usher in the New Wave of French Cinema which inspired the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and many others.
The film focuses on young adolescent Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a mischievous juvenile who is in constant strife from his parents (Claire Maurier & Albert Remy) –whom he constantly steals from - and his school teacher (Guy Decomble) – who he constantly agitates. His attempts to do right backfire, and after an accusation by his teacher that he is a plagiarist (a claim that would land him in big trouble at home and at school), he takes to the streets and dabbles in petty theft.
When his stepfather catches him red handed, he hands Antoine over to the police, who send him to a juvenile detention centre. Once there, the traumatic consequences that made him such a mischievous child comes to the forefront via a psychiatric analysis.
Truffaut’s ode to his childhood is an engrossing watch that is alluring in its simplicity and brilliant in its direction. It flows nicely at its own pace, never allowing melodrama to ruin its realistic and voyeuristic atmosphere.
There is no plot to speak of, nor is there a character arc to cling to. It just is. To some this may seem to be a boring for of entertainment, yet not all film is based on the concept to put on a show. Sometimes the most banal of film entertainment can provide the most invigorating film experiences.
The statements made about children are powerful and informative. Through Antoine, the viewer takes a glimpse into the universe which children inhabit, the motives behind their misbehaviour, and the events and experiences which shape them for better or worse.
The reasons behind a child’s lack of respect for authority are also examined. Here, Antoine is constantly in trouble with either his parents or his teachers. Both factions prove to be stern disciplinarians, prone to the use of corporal punishment. Yet neither provides the proper guidance which he needs.
His parents – particularly his mother – seem to live by the motto “Do as I say, not as I do”. She is an adulterer, who abandoned Antoine at a young age only to return years later, constantly professing her regret within earshot of her son. This behaviour no doubt has had an effect on her child, who reacts in a destructive manner.
Truffaut lived such a life, yet he had a mentor who kept him on the right path, film theorist Andre Bazin, who helped Truffaut pursue his passion for film, first as a critic, and then as a filmmaker. The 400 Blows is dedicated to him.