Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) launched François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Léaud and the Nouvelle Vague on the global cinematic stage in 1959. The film that helped Truffaut make his mark as an auteur and one of the greatest filmmakers in history is a semi-autobiographical work based on his childhood incidents. The portrayal of the protagonist, Antoine Doinel, played by the fourteen-year-old Léaud, is a realistic portrayal of a teenage rebel, trying to prove his point and make his way through the chaos of his surroundings, and the never-ending, claustrophobic rules the society imposes on him.
The film reminded me on more than one occasion of my days as a teenager, trying to break free of the innumerable rules and strict codes of discipline thrown at me as a convent student. Antoine Doinel is not the only teenager in the film, rebelling against the systems; he is rather the scapegoat who is caught for his obvious display of his true nature and a voice that is implied through his actions and expressions. From teenage rebels to friendship, the film deals with a lot of underlying themes that subtly yet brilliantly come to light through the ninety-six-minute run.
Antoine lives in a cramped apartment with his parents – a mother who is aloof and a father who is not his real father, and who often reminds his mother how obligated Antoine must be to him for using his name (Doinel) and his money. His school life is no different, with the class teacher taking a steady dislike to him, giving him extra assignments, and a boy adding to his miseries by letting his lies out in the open in front of Antoine’s father, revealing that Antoine had been bunking school. The only moment of peace Antoine has is the times he spends with his best friend René, who is also the only person who loves and understands him. Like René and Antoine, we all have had best friends in our middle-school years, we all have rebelled against strange rules set by the schools and scolding from parents, and in those moments of internal conflict and external chaos, we all have had moments when we felt that our friends were the only ones who understand us.
Apart from friendship, the other theme that the film explores is escapism, a trait common in many teenagers, then and now. We see Antoine trying to escape from various things and people throughout the film: his parents, his apartment, his nasty school teacher, the society and finally the juvenile home he is sent to. What makes Antoine Doinel a character nobody forgets is his ultimate subtle victory in escaping from the grasps of people, society and situations. As the film draws to a close, we see him run away from the juvenile home with a teacher following him. The music that has accompanied him all through the film, in each of his escapades, plays in the background, coupled with another tune, signifying the mental upheaval he must be going through. It slowly fades out and the signature tune continues playing as he runs steadily towards the sea and the frame freezes with Léaud staring at the camera. It implies Anotine Doinel’s ultimate victory at escaping everything that had been holding him back.
There are other numerous instances in the film that help its viewer journey back to their school years, like the boy in the class trying write with a fountain pen while the teacher dictates notes and ending up smearing the ink all over the pages and desk; the boys passing obscene pictures of women from desk to desk; Antoine trying to think of excuses to bunk school; and so on.
Although the film was set in 1950s Paris, the innocence of the teenagers, their struggles in school, their conflicting emotions and their desperate attempts to make their voices heard will resonate with young students for many years to come. Watching the film is like opening a gate to nostalgia and the good old days of middle school when mischief was just part of the day for all of us. The brilliance of The 400 Blows lies in the innate innocence it brings to the screen through Antoine Doinel’s face and expressions. You not only find a part of your childhood in his experiences at school, but you also sympathise with him and his ignorance of the real world. As an adult watching the teenager glide through life without a gentle mentor, you adore his innocence and worry for him as he is carried away to the juvenile home with tears streaming down his face.
Along with many themes that the film brings to light, it hints subtly at the importance of parental patience and guidance. Rightfully regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, The 400 Blows will forever remain a gateway to a stream of childhood memories and the stairway to our middle-school corridors, where we spent time with our best friends.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.