There are precious few films about childhood. Many aim for an audience of children, but most look down upon them in their assumption that they will eat up any and all immature entertainment simply because it is handed to them. It is the rare film that tries to peel back the layers behind childhood and to give us a look at what growing up entails. Because it is difficult to focus on children in film without rendering them types, either immature simpletons who do not understand the world or wise-beyond-their-years precocious types who “know” better than the adults around them, it is rarer that a film succeeds at presenting childhood with a quiet sigh, knowing a certain maturity without ever losing itself in the adult desire to judge and moralize to children. There have been a number of great films about childhood, but none stand taller than Francois Truffaut’s debut film, the work that kicked off perhaps the most important movement in film history, the French New Wave: The 400 Blows.
Unsentimental and challenging but touching and human, The 400 Blows trenchantly avoids melodrama in favor of something with a more honest affect, and Truffaut creates, in doing so, one of the great human stories the cinema has to offer. Above all, he captures something few can: the penetrating humanity of children. Indeed, one could say that exploring childhood gives one a means to understand humanity that a story about an adult cannot; it shows us what it means to become an adult, to approach a world one is unfamiliar with and whose rules one doesn’t yet understand but must have forced upon them nonetheless. It allows us to understand not only individuals, but these very social rules that structure our lives, and to explore human interaction and feeling as a result. Here, Truffaut shows us more than this. He gives us a vision, a disheartening one, a view of the world in which we are all, despite our interaction with others, perpetually alone, perpetually a victim of society, and perpetually lost.
The 400 Blows boasts a relatively simple though-line, essentially taking the form of a sighing slice-of-life drama. Antoine (Jean Pierre Leaud) is a tragic figure, but unlike so many films, not a figure who suffers from specific tragedy. He’s perpetually, and very humanly, rendered to blame by children around him, but the worst pain comes from his superiors, the figures who announce him a troublemaker and who pigeonhole him as a hell-raiser, who approach him with patronizing superiority and contemptuous disdain. The title of the film evokes violence, but the film knows it not in the corporal sense. It is about a much deeper kind of violence, the kind society invokes on individuals when it tells them they are worthless and lack a future, the kind that doesn’t so “invade” a happy life as replace it, consume it, and become it. As the film attains a critical mass, we watch and worry as Antoine slides from loudly fighting back with boisterous childhood resistance to giving in, quieting himself, and accepting the harsh verbal coal flung at him to dirty up his identity.
It’s no secret that Antoine is Truffaut ,often misunderstood as a child and frequently the loser in games of respect and social acceptability. The 400 Blows is the adult Truffaut’s olive branch to his younger self, and knows a form of deep empathy for the character that hits much closer to home than superficial sympathy. Throughout, Truffaut uses his camera to involve us in Antoine’s life, and furthermore, to implicate us as he implicates the adults who look over Antoine when they ought to peer into his soul. Famously, he zooms in on a still-image of Antoine in the film’s closing shot. Here, we move toward Antoine but are immanently aware of his permanent fixedness; our getting closer does nothing to move Antoine, reflecting a symbolic stagnancy in his life. He’s frozen, but we have the ability to move around. And we wonder, as such, if our getting close to him, our involving ourselves in his life, is accomplishing anything, and whether our watching this film and caring for him is a meaningful gesture at all. Earlier, his conversation with a therapist has him talking directly to the camera, with us in the role of the therapist who we don’t see, propositioning us with the thought that we might help him and reminding us that we are, in the final analysis, helpless in the end.
And, through all this, we don’t just see a heartbreaking drama with universal appeal. We see something with a very specific appeal to Francois Truffaut. Watching this film about a kid losing his innocence and finding no real way to deal with it, all we are left with is a sense of hope for the cinema. Antoine isn’t fulfilled with his home life, nor school, and any attempts he makes to fulfill himself or others, such as writing a poem in homage to one of his favorite writers, are greeted only with disdain. We get the sense that he’s desperate, and with nothing left to lose, beset on the path to an outsider’s life. Will he succumb to a life of trouble-making, as the men and women who surround Antoine beckon him to?
The answer is yes, indisputably, but what’s left for the audience is what paths he has open for “raising hell” (as the idiom 400 blows loosely translates to). As we come to see in Antoine’s life, he is raising hell simply because he doesn’t belong, and because society doesn’t see anything in his talent. Perhaps, however, it’s this social distancing which will birth other fruits, the fruits of a filmmaker capable of raising hell by turning the camera back on his own life and exposing the tragedies at its core and the people who misunderstood him, a man capable of kickstarting the most hell-raising movement of human cinema, a movement that would redefine the barn-burning, self-reflexive potential of cinema across the world. .
Whatever becomes of Antoine though, his loss of innocence is permanently burned onto the minds of those who can share it with him, however fleetingly. Truffaut here has made a film so human in its artful simplicity that its almost impossible not to get swept up within a work of brutal, naturalist efficiency, quiet fear, and rambunctious spirit so thoroughly detached from anything theatrical Hollywood was doing at this time it approaches us like a bullet from the future. He’s given us a film that, in its combination of world-weary lethargy and youthful energy, mirrors that of its subject, a true film where technique and content are intertwined at an elemental level. Above all, he’s given us the gift of life through a camera, and it’s not to be missed.