The great thing about reviewing Criterion releases is that a lot of them never really got an MPAA rating. Let's establish: French kids are really evil to each other. Like, these kids are really badly behaved. I know I shouldn't be taken aback by smoking, especially in a French movie, but these kids smoke a lot. They also steal and lightly swear, so this movie has it goin' on. But considering that this is a movie about juvenile delinquents, it's pretty tame. I mean, you barely know that those girls in prison are prostitutes! Not rated.
DIRECTOR: François Truffaut
I have Truffaut copied and ready to be pasted. I love Truffaut. But for an entire year, I completely misspelled his named and spelled it "T-R-U-F-F-A-U-L-T". My students noticed and it led to a joke about it being my True Fault. So I guess everything turned out okay. I love this movie. I always have. In fact, this is the movie that got me obsessed with François Truffaut. That's not shocking. It is his most famous movie. After watching this movie the first time, I ended up binging the entire Antoine Doinel box set. This is one of those analyses that kind of might end up off the rails because I've seen it too many times and I'll just be "Chris Farley Showing" the whole thing.
As I mentioned in the MPAA section, these kids are so bad. I'm always taken aback. I introduce this movie academically at first. But immediately before hitting play for my students, I always stress that, based on my knowledge of The 400 Blows, all French kids are terrible. I've seen other French movies with French kids and they are always really poorly behaved. I don't know if this is reality or what, but I base a lot of my opinions about French children on Antoine Doinel. Remember, Doinel is an avatar for Truffaut in a lot of cases. His Antoine Doinel movies might be the most semi-autobiographical (is it just "autobiographical" in this situation? I don't care. I didn't sleep much last night.). Was Truffaut just a bad kid? I think I remember reading something about that. Regardless, what Truffaut's perspective on adolescence brings to the movie is a sympathetic view of juvenile delinquency. Doinel, behavior and all, comes across as a rascal. I know this sounds cheap and like I'm not very smart, but there's an element of Calvin or Dennis the Menace in him. We all know that Antoine's conflicts all stem from self-induced situations. He does the wrong thing knowing that they are going to have consequences. This is early established when he graffitis the wall with his own name. He doesn't act shocked when the discipline heads his way, but he does seem spiritually and emotionally injured when the teacher provides a repercussion. The scoundrels are the heroes in this movie, Doinel being the most important. This is Truffaut at his best. He portrays the teacher as such a villain, despite the fact that the teacher is trying to maintain calm in a world of chaos. (Also, he's really effective at maintaining an academic environment, despite the evil little children in the room. It's probably all that hitting. Ooooh...that's why he's the bad guy. He hits kids and enjoys their misery.)
AND THEN WEEBLY DELETED MY STUFF!
Okay, back to reconstructing this. Truffaut does this really cool thing with ton in The 400 Blows. He's basically tasked with a genre of his own. This is a story that should be a kids' movie. We've seen this narrative before. It is about children and how they don't get along with adults. The kids live in a world that is only really understood by children. One of the major motifs of the story is much like Will Smith's "Parents just don't understand". Everything is from the perspective of Antoine and the way he sees the world. He is complex and he is frustrated with everything around him. But the movie isn't for children. While Antoine is a prototypical adolescent, he has this wealth of pathos that needs to be explored. He is constantly getting into trouble and knowing he'll get caught at what he's doing. I know that I couldn't live Antoine's life. Antoine breaks the rules. I always followed them. This is still true today. But Truffaut captures something very cool. He manages to convey the adrenaline that comes with spitting at authority. On the few times I was peer pressured into misbehavior (I'm the kid who checked to see if Antoine was feeling better after he missed school. That kid.), it was a huge rush to know that I was doing wrong. I actually don't know how I got away with it those few times. My Saturday school teacher (a Ukrainian thing that I still try to repress) must never have communicated with my parents. But the thrill of knowing that I would be absolutely destroyed when I got home was a big part of my childhood. Like Antoine, I would also get away with murder some of the time. Again, I cannot stress how good of a kid I was. But Truffaut captures that. Doinel, at one point, sits in class after telling the teacher that his mother was dead. The second that the teacher is called out of the room, he tenses up and knows that this about him. Being fourteen is complex and that's Truffaut's story. He remembers what 14 is all about. The movie is far deeper than that, but Truffaut, on the most simplistic level, manages to convey what childhood is really like. It isn't a facsimile of adolescence. He is giving his adolescence to us.
Similarly, this is a scathing critique of what poverty does to children. It is about the role of adults. Like I mentioned, every adult in this movie is the enemy. They don't understand or try to understand Antoine at any time. Even Antoine's father, while likable for a lot of the movie, is only superficially tied to Antoine. It almost seems like he cares more about being liked than he is about knowing what is going on with his son. Really, the adults in this movie are kind of selfish. Maybe that's what Truffaut is really reflecting on. The adults in this are so concerned about their own happiness and trust that they lose this kid in the system. Antoine is already pretty poor. He has money for mild luxury items. They go to the movies at one point. Mom asks him to run out for food from time to time. Dad has Michelin magazines. But Antoine sleeps on a couch. It seems like him needing money is always a major inconvenience for everyone involved. But Mom is so concerned with keeping her own affair secret that she simply sees Antoine as a risk. Dad wants Antoine to be his buddy, but does nothing to get Antoine back on track at school. The teacher really wants to bust this kid down to size. I know, the movie is from Antoine's perspective, but there is truth to the scenes. Antoine does stuff knowing that he will be caught. He signs his name to the graffiti that he creates. It's odd that he is personally hurt by his punishment in every case, but there has to be a degree of attention that Antoine wants. I just watch this movie (after a million other viewings) and see a kid whom no one puts in a place of priority for positive reasons. I mean, Antoine had to know that the dead mom thing wasn't going to last. There is no sustainability there. If Truffaut is commenting on his own childhood with this movie, it's heartbreaking. That end shot is so perfect as well. There is no clean ending for this story. Sure, we have the sequels, but one moment isn't going to change this kid. He needs some degree of care and the person that is in charge of rehabilitating him sees him as a liability.
Mom is the worst in this movie. She's never evil. She actually has some real moments where she tries different tactics. But she never really wants to grow up either. In Mom's world, she is the hero of the story. She is burdened by this husband and child and just wants to find a way to be herself again. I think this might be Truffaut's commentary on the selfishness of the era. Sure, that selfishness probably still exists, but Mom is the most fleshed out adult in the story. There is so much baggage with her character that really isn't spelled out but just makes sense. The only thing we know is that she is having an affair and that she is put out by her kid. But there's a moment where Antoine's eye-line rises and we see a fancy hat. We see that everything that she tells Antoine carries a threat with it. She is strategic and afraid of the fallout of her mistakes. But she doesn't take control. She blames all of her problems on this child who just has no peer. The odd thing is that Mom and Antoine seem more at odds than Antoine with any other character. But they should be best of friends. If you had to talk about similar personality traits, Antoine and Mom really have more in common than any other two characters, his friend included. His friend does awful things with Antoine, but he does it for the thrill of it. Antoine seems to do it as a form of escape from the misery that is constantly encroaching on his life. That's why the movie theater scene is so cathartic. He just wanted stuff like that for two seconds in his life without being told that he is wrong. That's great.
I could go on with this forever, but Weebly already put me behind my schedule and I'm tired as get out. The music in this is beautiful. Crazy random happenstance: immediately after finishing The 400 Blows, I watched Frances Ha and loved that the soundtrack was in that one too. It's such a good soundtrack and that goes a long way with me. I love The 400 Blows and I feel like I didn't do this review justice. Regardless, if you haven't seen it, you really should. It is absolutely phenomenal.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.