What else is there to say about 400 Blows? It is that stand by of foreign film. When you first get into foreign film, when you first study the subject it's one of those essential movies: Seven Samurai, Bicycle Thief, Wild Strawberries and 400 Blows. I first saw it as part of my film studies classes in college. All I can say is that it earns its spot.
This is another movie from the French New Wave that began in 1958 and continued through the '60s. Truffaut was one of the leading director along with Goddard. But unlike 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which is good but needs a certain mindset to really appreciate, 400 Blows is totally accessible. The story and characters are so universal that you almost don't need subtitles to follow along. Goddard aimed for the intellect with 2 or 3 Things, with 400 Blows Truffaut aimed squarely at the heart.
For those who don't know the story is about a young boy Antoine in Paris. The title comes from a French saying that it takes 400 Blows for a child to become a man. The story is supposed to be autobiographical and if that's the case then Truffaut took about 300 of those blows before he was 13. Antoine in this story has it rough. His teacher, nicknamed Sourpuss, is long on discipline and totally deficient in kindness. Things aren't that much better at home. His mother we later find out got pregnant by accident. She was forced to carry Antoine to term by his grandmother. Later she married a man who wasn't Antoine's father. They aren't openly abusive to Antoine but they end up being just as corrosive. Every child fears that there is a limit to their parents' love. They fear if they do something bad enough their Mom and Dad will just stop loving them. In Antoine's case that turns out to be the truth. They really do have limits. And that is ultimately just as damaging to Antoine as any slap in the face.
This is actually a very grim story. Antoine really has almost no one in his corner. His teacher is pretty useless. During a class assignment Antoine copies a passage from a story by Balzac and passes it off as his own. The teacher, rather than being impressed that the kid actually read Balzac, mocks him in front of the entire class. The only person who gives about Antoine is his buddy Rene. Rene is just like Antoine. His parents don't really care that much about him. The difference is Rene and his family are rich and live in a gigantic house. Antoine lives in a shabby tenement.
The movie is justifiably famous for its camera work. Truffaut may be telling an intimate, small story but he gives it plenty of style. And it isn't there just for style's sake. One of my favorite scenes involves Antoine at a spinning carnival ride. The camera spins along with Antoine. In the end the ride is over. It was a lot of fun but Antoine has literally just gone around in circles.
There are several other great scenes. This movie has a tone of humor. There's a fantastic shot of a gym teacher leading a class on a jog through the city. One group of boys after another ducks out and escapes the line as the oblivious teacher marches on. The final shot is very famous. Antoine escapes reform school and makes it all the way to the coast. The image freezes on his confused and vulnerable face.
Just as amazing is the scene leading up to that, a long tracking shot of Antoine fleeing through the countryside.
Is this a good template for screenwriters and directors? Yes and no. Yes in that it should serve as an example that small intimate films can still be visually exciting. It's bad if writers and directors use camera tricks to liven up a dead story. Antoine's story would be compelling even if it were told simply. The style just underscored the point. Too many times I've read scripts that had fancy cinematography but no story to go along with it.