The 400 Blows (1959)

It's easy to shrug off a movie. Easier still is it to ask someone to justify why it is that the movie they love is great. Try it next time when someone is trying to convince you how amazing a movie that you didn't like is..."Why?" It's shuts them right up. What's hard is justifying a movie to someone who "just didn't like it". My father has this down to an art form. I'll show him a movie and he'll just go "meh" and then walk out. However, I think the hardest thing is standing up for a film that you had no emotional connection with because you can still tell it's good.
This is where 'The 400 Blows" comes into play. This is essential viewing, necessary to anyone who is trying to grasp cinema as a whole. But why? Why should it have to be seen? Perhaps because of a little honesty.
Children are often the embodiment of adult minds. Short of a child writing and directing a movie, which I'm not opposed to, there is no true way to re-capture the essence of being a kid. François Truffaut's debut piece, arguably one of the most famous debuts in cinema history, is known for being a portrait of childhood, based in part of Truffaut's own life. This wouldn't be the first time that children have been bleak in movies, "Lord of the Flies" and "Zero for Conduct" both say otherwise.
Antoine (a staggeringly adult performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a boy who doesn't care for school. It doesn't help that his school teacher resembles everyone's worst nightmare of school. A dictator who seems to verge of sadism, he rarely has the kindness to compliment any of the boys and they all hate him. The hatred is evident in the first scene, all the boys have gone past the point of being afraid of his power—they resent him for it.
He makes Antoine stand in the corner, this is step in of the downhill spiral that the boy takes. He's standing in the corner for something that he didn't do, but his teacher doesn't care about that. He is sent home to find a mother who doesn't really care for him and a father whose mood swings place Antoine on top of a very precarious tightrope. Though his father seems to have genuine affection for him, sometimes it comes across to us as the lesser of two evils.
The parents—always a villainous force—don't bother with the time to listen to their son. He's not given enough moments to finish his assignment for the next day so he and his friend decide that they'll take the day off. This is a mistake, but aren't we all allowed to make mistakes, especially in our childhood? Antoine and his friend loaf around for the day—in these scenes, it's really the only time that we see Antoine happy.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing that movie evokes is the feeling of being a prisoner, literally and figuratively. I can remember moments in my childhood where I felt like I could please no one, trapped between my own wrongdoings and the contemptuous thoughts of the adult society towards children. Your opinions don't matter, you don't eat free, things of this nature. I had a great childhood, but there are moments of it that I look back on with immense hatred, through no one's fault I think that this trait is common in all of us—at least Truffaut agrees with me here.
Truffaut seems to live for the desolation, the dismal-ness of being a child. He must have hated it.
Antoine starts to get in further trouble and the treatment of the adults in his life don't help him. They only tell him that he's an idiot and a screw-up, they never tell him how to be better. He plagiarizes on an essay because he thinks that it's the right thing to do—he gets taken to the principal for that, but he escapes and never goes back to school. Living on his own, free from the adults, older figures make their way into his life. He gets confined again.
Nothing good ever happens to Antoine. He is taken to a correctional facility for young boys where the rigor of the rules hardly makes for any fun. He nibbles on his bread too soon and is then given a hard smack across the face.
"The 400 Blows" doesn't really know what it is. The film is obviously a commentary on adolescence and the hell that it can be; but it doesn't seem to have any point. It could all be a political allusion, yes, I see that; but I doubt that it is.
The maternal and paternal figures are always evil, manipulative, and detrimental to the well-being of Antoine.
Still, "The 400 Blows" is a good movie. If there had been just a touch more emotional helplessness, I might have empathized a little more; but Truffaut insists of presenting a bright and cheery score to accompany his dreary piece.
It seems like a movie that is warning parents to raise their children the right way...or else!
The immovability of the movie takes you by the throat. There is no resolution, just as there shouldn't be; but perhaps "The 400 Blows" is about a boy and his traumatic childhood. It would still be good.
There are so many genuine performances that combat the hyperbolic ones.
It's a movie of opposition, and it is classic; but perhaps not great.

Score: ★★★

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