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'The 400 Blows' (1959): A Review

"Angel faces hell-bent for violence" (Not gonna lie: This 'tag-line' is a bit misleading)
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The 400 Blows

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François Truffaut is director and writer whose name has become synonymous with the French New Wave movement – a period in cinematic history wherein France’s influence on the art of film was at its strongest, and helped to reshape the idea of cinema itself by focusing on more personal, ordinary stories than on grand, big-budget tales. Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ (1959) is a perfect representation of that new cinematic focus as the film follows the life of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a fourteen-year-old Parisian boy who, lacking proper guidance and a nurturing atmosphere, begins to act out and delve into a life of petty crime.

A film that focuses on characterization at the expense of plot, Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ is a slow but fascinating work that comes across as a labor of love as Truffaut’s camera deftly maneuvers around the Parisian landscape and shows us a side of the City of Lights that is anything but complimentary. Indeed, the Paris of Truffaut’s film is a gritty and grim interpretation of the city, composed of cramp tenements and soot-painted apartments that only further drive home the idea that Antoine Doinel is stuck in a miserable, dank world that he wants nothing more to escape.

But while the city itself may be portrayed in a less than flattering light, Truffaut’s camerawork proves to be rather deft and beautiful despite its simple style. Long, lingering shots are common in the composition of Truffaut’s film, with Truffaut taking much delight in drawing out a single shot longer than most other directors would. But nevertheless, Truffaut’s instincts are more often right than wrong, and the action that occurs during these long shots are, for the most part, imbued with enough animation to keep one’s interest.

Despite being only fourteen-years-old at the time of filming, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance is a spectacular one, his careful use of facial expression and the dead-pan delivery of some of his lines portraying Antoine as a smart but misguided youth whose maturity and desire to run away from his mundane, unhappy existence often calls to mind another youth by the name of Holden Caulfield (albeit, without all of the self-righteousness that makes Caulfield so unbearable at times in J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’).

Whether it’s standing up to his cruel French teacher, his parents, or the police, Léaud manages to portray Antoine as a mature yet fragile young man who seems to want to be treated as an adult, and yet shies away from this desire as soon as his wish is granted (particularly noticeable in the scene where Antoine’s petty crimes – or more accurately, the police – finally catch up with him).

Léaud’s performance is helped tremendously by Claire Maurier and Albert Rémy, who play his mother and father respectively. Maurier, playing an egotistically and selfish wife to Rémy’s kinder, but ultimately weak-willed and frequently absent husband, help to create a household that practically simmers with tension whenever Antoine is home and interacting with his parents. It is Léaud’s interactions with Maurier and Rémy, along with other adults or “authority” figures, that helps to generate a great deal of tension and suspense in an otherwise slow, and somewhat meandering film.

Although Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ might be lacking conventional action (indeed, there are times when ‘The 400 Blows’ comes off more as a documentary on 1950’s Parisian families than as a fictional story), it is the little moments and hints that Truffaut weaves into his film that helps to prevent ‘The 400 Blows’ from becoming boring or monotonous (most of the time anyways). A simple but effective tale about a young man’s attempts to escape the dreariness of his life, Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ is a slow but beautiful and fascinating film that, while not perhaps everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, is the perfect film for those wanting a film that is a bit more personal and intimate than a big-budget blockbuster or redundant remake.

Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.