Stories of childhood have often been tempered with the melancholic yearning of lost innocence (as in Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants) or the profound weight of human misery (as in Robert Bresson’s Mouchette). In The 400 Blows, François Truffaut introduces his alterego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young man attempting to break from the confines of his unremarkable life through escapism and mischief. Antoine’s vacuous, neglected life unfolds before us with dispassionate objectivity: a misunderstood, underachieving student invariably caught red-handed with the pinup centerfold or scribbling on the classroom wall; a selfish, adulterous mother attempting to reach her son through bribery; a crude, distant father flaunting his generosity in giving the illegitimate son a name. But the pensive Antoine is hardly the incorrigible delinquent that everyone has destined for him, and his fascination for cinema and literature provide a fleeting distraction from his ennui. Attempting to conceal a failing grade on a Balzac-inspired essay (which the teacher is convinced he has plagiarized), he runs away from home, an act which exacerbates to theft, and inevitably, sends him to a camp for juvenile delinquents.
Truffaut’s assured camerawork never wavers in this highly influential and relevant film of adolescence. Successive, montage shots of children watching a puppet show emphasize their innocence, and sharply contrast with the disillusioned Antoine in jail, seemingly detaching himself from his inextricable situation by pulling his turtleneck over his nose. Fluid camera tracking pervade the film’s exterior shots, reflecting the humor and vitality of youth. Note the lightly paced, overhead shot of the outdoor exercise scene, as the boys slowly splinter off in different directions until no one is left. In contrast, Antoine’s flight from the reform school is slow and labored, reaching an uncertain conclusion. Ending with the infamous stop motion zoom of Antoine at the shoreline, he is at a proverbial crossroads: unable to keep running away, looking back at a familiar, hopeless fate.
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