The 400 Blows (Les quatre cent coups)
(France, 1959)

I remember the first time I saw The 400 Blows. It occurred during the period when I was a "new" critic, and, as part of my education in cinema, I decided to see as many classic films as I could. I brought home a copy of The 400 Blows from the video store after watching several consecutive disappointments (so-called "great" movies that didn't live up to their reputations). Ten minutes into François Truffaut's debut feature, I knew I had found a motion picture deserving of the copious praise that had been heaped upon it through the years. Because of its title, The 400 Blows is often mistaken for something that it isn't (a movie about child abuse or a "blue" flick). What it is, however, is one of the most compelling coming-of-age stories ever committed to film. Melodrama and sentimentality often ruin this kind of movie; both are entirely absent from The 400 Blows, which is so well written, effectively acted, and expertly directed that it doesn't need these crutches to draw the viewer into the main character's world. The 400 Blows started Truffaut's amazing career as a feature film director. Definitely not a one-hit wonder, the legendary filmmaker turned out more than a dozen memorable features during a career that was shortened by his untimely death at the age of 52. (Ironically, he may be best known to American movie-goers for his acting work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) The 400 Blows is one of Truffaut's two or three best efforts.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The 400 Blows is the first of five time Truffaut brings us a chapter in the life of his cinematic alter-ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Antoine is not so much of a troublemaker as he is unlucky. His exploits, at least early in the film, are no different from those of his school classmates - except he's the one who gets caught and punished. For example, when a pin-up is being passed around, the teacher notices it when it's on Antoine's desk. Once Antoine has earned his teacher's disapproval, he has placed himself in a bad position - one that is exacerbated when he fails to do his homework, then tells a foolhardy lie that is easily disproven. Still, many of Antoine's school infractions are minor. It's just that the authority figures see them in the worst possible light. Even when Antoine tries to do something right, it turns out wrong. On one occasion, he writes an essay inspired by and in the style of Balzac. His teacher accuses him of plagiarism. Antoine's home life isn't much better. His mother (Claire Maurier), who gave birth to Antoine after an unwanted pregnancy, spends as much time away from home as she can. When she's with her son, she has difficulty controlling her impatience with him. His stepfather (Albert Rémy) is sometimes friendly and companionable, but, on other occasions, he's short-tempered and grumpy. Neither parent seems to care much about what happens to Antoine. To them, he's an inconvenience who cannot be ignored. When something goes wrong at school, they immediately adopt the teachers' position without listening to Antoine's perspective. One day when he gets in trouble, he deduces that it would be better to run away than go home.

Calling The 400 Blows a "coming-of-age story" seems somehow inadequate. The label, while accurate, does not indicate either the uniqueness or the cinematic importance of this motion picture. There's no question that The 400 Blows stands out when compared to other coming-of-age dramas. Even though more than forty years have elapsed since the film's release, its effect has neither faded nor been duplicated. By eschewing manipulation and sentimentality, Truffaut does not invite false emotions and insincere pity. Instead, his clear-eyed approach presents Antoine to us with all of his faults and foibles on display. He is not "sanitized" to shade our response. Yet, because Truffaut's style is so honest, we develop a deeper connection with Antoine that we would have in a traditional melodrama. And, when that final shot occurs, leaving Antoine suspended in time, with his future uncertain, our reaction is unforced. As with the other great classics, the passage of time causes us to appreciate The 400 Blows all the more.

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