BP’s Top 100 Movie Challenge #12: The 400 Blows, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
I went into The 400 Blows knowing nothing about the film. I did some reading about it afterwards to add a little context. It made perfect sense when I read that this was director François Truffaut’s debut film. As one of the founders of the French New Wave, this fits right in. This semi-autobiographical film is an intimate look at how difficult an age your preteen years are. It is so much harder when you have a difficult family life and no support at school. The lead character Antoine is played by the talented Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose naturalistic performance makes Antoine feel so real.
I was, and honestly still am, a rule-follower. I never cut school or anything like that, so it is always interesting to me to see stories about people who don’t care about “the rules”. Antoine and his best friend Rene do not care about blowing off school or running away from their gym class. They have to get creative when it comes time to deal with the aftermath. But they are young, terrible liars and you have to laugh because I know I thought the same way when I was that age. They think they are so clever and inventive and in reality, they are thinking of the same lies and excuses that millions of other kids thought of before them.
While watching The 400 Blows, I couldn’t help but think about how difficult an age middle school is. You have so many new feeling and thoughts and you don’t know where to go with those feelings, and without strong support around you it is easy to get out of control. That is what happens to Antoine. His bad luck combined with his messed-up family life gets him labeled a trouble-maker and a bad seed. The moments that we see of Antoine’s secret inner life make me think he really isn’t a bad kid. He isn’t malicious or cruel. He is just young and frustrated. The fact that he feels guilty about his petty crimes shows that he is good. He is just a terrible thief and a bad liar.
Truffaut captures both sides of Antoine beautifully. We see how fun it must be to be young and in Paris. It is a playground and adventure, but it can also be cruel and hard. Antoine really only spends one night on his own and he feels how cold the world can be. But his insistence on breaking the rules and lying leads to his stepfather giving up on him and give him over to the care of the state. Antoine is forced to go to a disciplinary camp and in a beautiful scene he is driven out of Paris with its lights and energy to go to the country.
I am not the biggest fan of the French New Wave, though I value its importance to cinema history. But I have to say I really enjoyed The 400 Blows. Its authenticity, wonderful performances, and examination of youth made the film impactful and easy to watch. Because The 400 Blows is about a boy, I was able to be on Antoine’s side and sympathize. The film beautifully builds to the final shot of Antoine looking right into the camera as he stands on the beach. He finally got to see the sea and is at a transitional moment. He is old enough to have consequences for his actions but young enough to not fully understand the world yet. He is at the point of no return, he can turn to a life of crime and failure or he can turn it around and find a way to change.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
The 400 Blows ranking: Battleship