The 400 Blows suggests that every kid is just a few steps away from delinquency. All it takes is a dismissive parent or an abusive teacher or a needling friend and our worst impulses can hold sway during those formative years.
Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) unfortunately experiences all three of these unhealthy influences. The affable young hero of Francois Truffaut’s 1959 debut is barely tolerated by his parents in their cramped Parisian apartment; mostly they treat him like a servant. At school, his teacher doles out more punishment than knowledge. His deskmate, meanwhile, has already learned how to game the system, devising ways to sneak out of school and pawn the property of his own (inattentive) parents.
Not that The 400 Blows is some sort of grim Dickensian tale. Rather, Truffaut imbues the movie with the irrepressible energy and optimism of youth; his camera scampers as it tries to keep up with Antoine and his friends. At one point, this requires a delightful swish pan that veers from one busy street on which Antoine is running to instantly pick him up as he races down another. Later, we get a birds-eye view of Antoine’s classmates jogging in unison behind their teacher. Each time they pass an alley, two or three of them sneakily peel away from the group until their oblivious teacher is left nearly alone.
Léaud has a poetic surliness that captures Antoine’s “innocence” just as it’s beginning to curdle.
This rambunctious spirit especially picks up around the movie’s mid-point, when Antoine and his friend (Patrick Auffay) go on a spree of truancy and minor crime. Drinking, smoking, scamming, they check all the boxes, working twice as hard to maintain their carefree lifestyle than they would have to work at school.
As Antoine, Léaud gives one of the great child performances. There is a poetic surliness to him that captures Antoine’s youthful “innocence” just as it’s beginning to curdle. It’s mostly a performance of authentic impulses and expressions, but there is also a remarkable sequence – captured by Truffaut in a handful of clever dissolve cuts – in which Antoine answers questions from a court-ordered psychologist. Finally faced with an adult who will genuinely listen to him, he delivers a monologue that’s 60 percent bravado and 40 percent aching for acceptance.
As nostalgic as The 400 Blows is, the movie is also made by an adult, one who knows that Antoine’s freedom, such as it is, will be short-lived. And so Antoine lands in jail (there’s a mournful shot of him sleeping on the floor of a cell) and is eventually sent to a seaside juvenile home. He attempts an escape, and Truffaut follows his flight with an extended tracking shot along a country road. You hope, for Antoine’s sake, that the shot never ends, but it does when Antoine comes to the ocean. He turns to the camera and Truffaut ends the film with one of the most famous freeze-frame shots in all of movie history. It’s an act of mercy, really – allowing Antoine an eternal moment of youth before the waves of adulthood come crashing in.