François Truffaut’s great gift as a storyteller is for understanding. Many filmmakers possess this skill, not the least of which were two of Truffaut’s heroes, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. But Hitch understood humans as a cynic and it was Renoir who penned the eternal but sardonic truth, “What is truly dreadful is that everyone has his reasons.” In Truffaut, everyone has their reasons, but the dreadful thing is that people misunderstand them. In The 400 Blows (1959), Truffaut’s greatest film, he seems to be arguing that to open up and avoid those misunderstandings could be the difference between a happy life and one of emotional poverty.
The story is the first chapter in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series chronicling the life of Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) from adolescence inThe 400 Blows to middle age in Love On The Run (1979), three episodes later. It’s a remarkable collaboration between director and actor (in addition to playing Doinel five times, Léaud appeared in two other Truffaut movies), and Léaud became Truffaut’s avatar on screen. The upbringing of Antoine Doinel is based partly on Truffaut’s own childhood, and the warmth and, in many cases, anger of a formerly troubled young man comes alive on screen. The 400 Blows isn’t a piteous whine from a begrudged adult, however; it is a deeply affecting and sensitive discussion of the need for love and the danger of selfishness.
Nearly everyone in the movie is at fault because of their self-absorption. Doinel, around thirteen, always ends up being the student who gets caught in a school full of delinquents. His teacher (Guy Decomble) is harsh and teaches not from a desire to impart knowledge but from one to extend dominion over others. When Doinel is caught passing a pin-up poster, he is branded as a deviant and the teacher is unduly suspicious of him. Later, when Doinel tells him that his mother has died, the teacher expresses genuine concern and even empathy, but when Doinel’s parents, mother included, arrive at the school, the teacher disregards anything Doinel goes on to say as lies, leading to Doinel’s expulsion after the teacher takes an assignment of Doinel’s as a plagiarism of Balzac instead of homage.
The episode in which Doinel lies about mother is telling because it elicits a reaction from the teacher that shows he has compassion if only he’s forced to listen. What Doinel does is extreme and he feels immediate shame for it (whether that shame is because of the lie itself or because he will certainly get caught in it is debatable), but if the teacher had seen Doinel as a human and not a troublemaker from the beginning, he might have picked up on Doinel’s more quiet cries for help. Doinel is clearly a bright student but he needs structure and effective discipline. The teacher is a tyrant, not an educator; his punishment is meant to restrict, never to illuminate the path to learning.
The school section shows off Truffaut’s love of Jean Vigo, whose schoolhouse Zero For Conduct (1933) he directly quotes here, especially in terms of the teachers being either cold functionaries (in Doinel’s main teacher’s case), blind fools (there’s an extended shot in which a P.E. teacher takes a class for a run and one by one the line peels off to play hooky until the teacher is the leader of a very small group), or grotesque weirdos (there’s a scene in an English class when the stuttering teacher unwittingly teaches the students to say “bitch” that portends a similar foreign language lesson in Fellini’s Amarcord ).
The school scenes also reinforce Truffaut’s thesis of the human tendency to be blind to the needs of others in service of your own. Truffaut effectively argues that this tendency is greater, and more tragic, between the world of adults and children. The teachers don’t understand the students and don’t care to, and the students withhold themselves because they’ve been trained to expect rejection.
Doinel occupies that difficult age in which the responsibilities of adulthood are heaped upon him but not the benefits. He’s not old enough to truly participate in his father’s racing hobby, but he’s old enough to be accused of stealing his Michelin guide. He wanders a street and encounters a beautiful woman looking for her lost dog and tries to help before a playboy with designs to find more than just the missing canine shoves him out of the way. He’s certainly not too young, at his lowest moment, to be put in the back of a police truck next to prostitutes and criminals. Doinel rides a carnival attraction in which participants are stuck to the wall of a spinning cylinder, and Doinel looks up at spectators (one of whom is Truffaut) who are watching the whirling scene below. It must seem like the world of adults to him: a confusing blur where no one will stop long enough to let him get on.
At home things aren’t much better. His mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) is more concerned with the way she looks than the upbringing of her son, and his stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy) is civil enough but not committed. They talk to others about Doinel, even when he’s in the room, only of his being a nuisance and a bother, that no one could handle him. They don’t try very hard. Each parent spends moments of closeness with the boy but these are shallow. Julien playfully aligns himself with Doinel against his mother, and Gilberte warmly shares a story of her childhood to try to relate to Doinel’s struggles. The sunniest moment in the movie occurs when the parents take Doinel to a movie. These passages are temporary and never shed the feeling that they are chores for Julien and Gilberte—bare–minimum parenting. Both are more involved in their personal avocations: Julien has his auto racing, and Gilberte has her make-up, tight clothing and extra-marital relations (Doinel catches her in an embrace with another man while he’s skipping school, further muddling his sense of morality and authority).
Truffaut’s damnation of egoism does not spare Doinel, who is a bad apple and often acts to his immediate and exclusive benefit. The movie argues that Doinel is made this way by not having any positive avenues for his precociousness, but that can’t make us approve of his lying about his mother or his theft of a typewriter (in typical Doinel fashion, however, he’s caught trying to return it). Léaud’s performance is remarkable as a kid who is mainly acted upon but is anything but passive. It’s heartbreaking to watch Léaud realistically portray a young person trying to define himself in a world where he has no stability. Watch him at the dinner table while his parents talk or at school during a chastising lecture or in his bed while his parents fight. Watch him accept that this is all he knows while wondering if he doesn’t deserve better.
Léaud never shows off but always displays how intelligent his Doinel is, which culminates at a detention center when he reveals just how much he knows about what’s going on around him to an unseen therapist. Doinel is a classic case of a bright boy in danger of throwing his life away because those in charge of rearing him can’t be bothered to do it positively. Although he’s lived more than he should have at his age, he looks most like a little kid in a jail that’s holding him after he’s caught with the typewriter. A man is led into Doinel’s cell. The man asks him what he’s in for and he tells him. “What did you do?” Doinel asks the man. “Oh, you know.” We have a feeling that, unless his course is altered, Doinel may know soon enough.
The 400 Blows was Truffaut’s first feature and already he has a knack for efficient and empathetic visuals. We side with Doinel, but Truffaut is able to visually give affinity to his parents. There are subtle insinuations of the Doinels’ poverty. They are on top of each other in a cramped apartment. They can’t afford to replace clothes that spring holes. Note the embarrassed look on Doinel’s face when his friends implore him to steal from his parents; he knows he shouldn’t because for his parents, the privilege of splurging on a floodlight for the car comes at the expense of being able to wash their clothes. He can’t even take the garbage out without the lights of his crummy building, on a timer to save energy, going out. It’s not right but it’s understandable that his parents might look at Doinel as another bill, another financial obstacle keeping them from what they want to do.
Truffaut also implicates France itself as a pseudo-parent of Doinel, just as capable of putting its own needs ahead of its children. Posters of Napoleon look on coldly, the virtues of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” are festooned on doorways but don’t seem to be found anywhere else; the Bastille, that symbol of political freedom, is used as a spot for moral corruption; and even the Eiffel Tower, which highlights the gorgeous opening shots, is never seen again, human achievement hidden in the midst of human negligence.
What makes Truffaut one of the greatest of all filmmakers is his ability to take material like this, which in the hands of another would be rife for cynical gainsaying, and infuse it with optimism. Truffaut often tells stories about human nature that are complete with warts but are undeniably positive without ever feeling false. He would return to the subject of cruelty toward children in Small Change (1976), which is one of his warmest movies, but he would also take on misogyny, violence, death and intolerance throughout his career without ever compromising his affirmative outlook. The 400 Blows has wonderful moments of levity and nostalgia (look at Léaud’s face when he’s getting himself ready for the school day and suddenly realizes he hasn’t done the day’s assignment, a universal moment), and while its critique pierces like an arrow, its overall feeling is one of celebration. This is a life. It’s worthwhile. We’re all responsible for how it turns out. Look at the loving, Bergman-esque montage of children’s faces at a Punch-and-Judy show. These kids are younger than Doinel, but some will face his same challenges; others will have roads much easier. Look at the magnificent freeze-frame of Doinel that ends the movie. He’s escaped from a juvenile center (another institution of thoughtless discipline) and is looking upon the ocean for the first time. There’s as much hope in that face as there is doubt. It’s a larger world than you can imagine, Antoine Doinel, and it can be wonderful.