I swear, films are like busses. I watch them sparingly for a while and then suddenly I am devouring them. It’s been a long time since I have had both the appetite and the opportunity to watch so many movies. Long may this continue as, otherwise, I will be doing this list for another 10-15 years.
So here I am back in the world of French cinema with one of the most acclaimed French films of all time by one of France’s most acclaimed directors. Not necessarily a guarantee of my enjoyment, but it payed off in this instance.
The 400 Blows is the first in, what ended being, a series of films chronicling the life of Antoine Doinel. At this point he is about 14-15 years old and later films (which all feature the same actor in the role) see him well into adulthood. This still remains the most acclaimed, however, as it is a film that helped usher in the style of French New Wave cinema and helped to make a star out of child actor Jean-Pierre Léaud.
To say that the whole fill hangs on the performance of Léaud is an understatement. Everything around him functions well, but it is his performance as the delinquent adolescent that carries the whole thing. For me, the scene that epitomises his strength in this film is where he is talking to a child psychiatrist. Shoulders up, he projects some confidence but it’s his actions with his arms that demonstrate just how nervous the character is. This could just be happenstance, but it really reinforces his vulnerability.
In essence, The 400 Blows is about a neglected boy acting out. He was never wanted by his mother (and she lets him know this) or by his stepfather. Thanks to this and a bunch of other circumstances Antoine runs away from home, steals and ends up in a juvenile detention centre.
Rather than dumping all the details of Antoine’s neglect early in the film, we learn more and more as we watch. At the beginning it just seems like he is a naughty boy and even as Antoine’s behaviour deteriorates Léaud is still able to generate that much-needed sympathy of someone who has been failed on multiple counts.
Whilst I won’t be including it in my list of best films ever this was still an interesting watch and a good marker for when that French New Wave movement began. I know I am not entirely in the position to compare, but if I had to pick between a Godard or Truffaut film it would be Truffaut all the way.