in Criterion Month

The 400 Blows (1959)

Compared to your typical film protagonist, it’s hard to deny adolescence was easy for me. Just look at these general advantages I had: I grew up in the suburbs. I built up a loyal group of friends very on and have maintained those relationships to this day (as this blog proves). I was smart enough that it wasn’t especially hard to succeed in school. My parents were and are married and gainfully employed. Of course, that’s not really my life’s story, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Antoine Doinel’s plight in The 400 Blows.

Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a happy young boy except when he’s at school or at home. At school, he’s aggressively tormented by his teachers and classmates, and struggling to succeed academically. At home, his parents berate him for his troubles at school and their own frustrations. So what’s a boy to do but run away? Antoine repeatedly skips out on school when he gets in trouble and avoids returning home, fearing punishment.

Without adults he can trust, Antoine spends much time trying to fend for himself. During his frequent escapades, he stays with friends or in an abandoned factory. Eventually, Antoine’s father (Albert Rémy) hits his breaking point when the boy is caught trying to return a typewriter Antoine had stolen from his office, and the police are called. Antoine ends up spending the night in jail with thieves and prostitutes, and is sent to a youth detention center. Is there any hope for his redemption?

The obvious American parallel to this film is Rebel Without a Cause, which had come out a few years earlier. Both films deal with the frustration of being trapped in a world where, as the Fresh Prince put it, “parents just don’t understand.” Frustration seems to be an undercurrent in a lot of the films I’ve watched this month, I guess I gravitate toward the plight of the powerless against the powerful. The 400 Blows has perhaps the most hopeful ending of any of these films so far, as Antoine does what he does best one last time at the end. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but, hey, that’s what sequels are for.

This was the directorial debut for François Truffaut, for whom the film is semi-autobiographical. Now I’ve only seen the two most famous films of this legendary director, but if his other works are just as dedicated to exposing injustice and advocating for compassion and empathy in a harsh world, then I should keep watching his works in the Criterion months to come.