Friday, July 10, 2009

The 400 Blows (1959)

By Eric Jessen 7/9/09

The 400 Blows is one of the extraordinary experiences in film. Watching it is to personally absorb Antoine's suffering. You'll never feel more connected to a character in a movie than with Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud). The 400 Blows revolutionizes the relationship of the movie and its audience. We are no longer detached. The characters are no longer heroes or villains for us to glorify or idealize. There isn't a conventional narrative with a beginning, middle and end, for us to pretend is real and simply go along for the ride. With The 400 Blows we have a more intimate relationship with the movie and the characters. We dive straight into Antoine's life. He is not a hero or a villain but a person that we care for and we see as a part of ourselves, like we would a friend or a loved one. We don't regard his decisions and actions as ones that exist only to move forward a story. Instead they exist as simply a reaction to his life. While watching, we are not waiting for something interesting or important to happen, we are closely following Antoine. We, the audience, exist in the present, in a state of “being” in Antoine's life. I found myself regretting Antoine's mistakes as if I had made them or as if I could have prevented them.
Antoine is an adolescent, probably 14 (Jean-Pierre Leaud's age when he played the part), who attends an all boys school in Paris. He lives at the mercy of many adults who scold him and lecture him but don't care about him. As a result of his childhood of turmoil, he seems unable to care about his own life or other people. He talks with indifference about his mother's contempt for him. He says he lies to his parents because “if I told them the truth they wouldn't believe me anyway.” Antoine still has enough life left in him to run and run and run as much as possible. He tries as often as he can to escape. He seeks independence. Every once in while, when he's failed a school paper, or skipped class, when he has done something to irritate his parents, Antoine flees from home. He wanders around the city. Sometimes he stays at his friends house, but sooner or later when he's out of food he returns home . His life is cold and depressing but he seems to blindly press on.
Jean-Pierre Leaud is brilliant as Antoine. His performance is one of the best by a child actor in movie history. One look at Leaud as Antoine can bring you near tears. You can see in his face and his eyes that his life has destroyed all of his innocence and joy.
John Constantine contributes a moving and memorable score. There are also strong supporting performances by Claire Maurier as Antoine's mother, Alber Remy as his father, Guy Decomble as the School teacher, and Patrick Auffay as Antoine's best friend.
The 400 Blows is a realistic vision of one child's sorrow and hardship. Director Francois Truffaut presents Antoine in such vivid detail that he seems to be Truffaut's childhood persona. The 400 Blows can be sad, but thankfully Truffaut fills us with optimism with an ending that is uplifting. Antoine throughout the movie says he wishes he could see the ocean. Near the end, he is put in a boot camp. He then escapes and reaches the coast. As he approaches the water he slows down in disbelief. He steps into the water, the ocean washes away his problems, and for a moment, for at least a second, Antoine has hope.

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