Viewing now, it may be hard to appreciate just how revolutionary and influential The 400 Blows was. The tracking shot, the slow pan, jump cuts, handheld location shooting, Truffaut embraced the totality of what filmmaking could achieve, channeling Hitchcock's grand style to capture real life unvarnished; the film feels like a stylized documentary, bursting with authenticity. This is the real birth of cinema verité, uncompromising and fresh. Unlike his later work, Truffaut discards melodramatic affectation to make the mundane completely absorbing.
Consider the typical "coming-of-age" film, filled with nostalgia and revered innocence, thin on insight and often condescending. The 400 Blows, in contrast, attempts to provide an unsentimental view of a teenage boy and factors that shape his present and future. More specifically, Truffaut gives us a grim example of how nurture (or the lack of it) trumps nature.
Twelve-year-old Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) lives in a cramped apartment with his impatient mother (Claire Maurier), who wishes she'd never gotten pregnant, and his mercurial dad. Neither parent seems to care about Antoine, viewing him as an inconvenience — which is a small tragedy, because Antoine's the type of kid who reads and emotionally responds to Balzac on his own. His experiences at school are no better. Though no more troublesome than his classmates, Antoine is the frequent target of capricious and oppressive teachers and he becomes an outcast; even an enthusiastic essay on his literary hero Balzac is rejected as plagiarism. His only refuge is cinema, where he escapes real-world tyranny. One day when he gets in trouble, Antoine decides it'd be better to run away than go home. This begins his long slide into juvenile delinquency.
Without asking for pity or presenting false emotions, Truffaut offers a portrait of innocence lost through neglect and negative reinforcement. Antoine isn't offered up as a victim but rather a product of his upbringing, an honest approach that draws us closer to the boy, a bond that doesn't rely on sentiment. He's an inarticulate Holden Caulfield, whose actions communicate his gradual disenfranchisement.
In Léaud, Truffaut finds a level of authenticity that defied cinematic conventions of the day. There's nothing actorly about the boy's performance; Léaud captures the fidgety, uncertain and, ultimately, defiant, spirit of teenage longing and frustration. And Truffaut exploits this. A session with a psychologist is uncomfortably real; the interviewer smartly kept off-screen, the camera focused instead on Antoine's every squirm and hesitation. It's only one of many brilliant shots in the film. From the handheld tracking shot through Antoine's grimy home to a hilarious bird's-eye view of his PE class jogging through the streets of Paris, losing pupils along the way, to the devastating close-up of 14-year-old Antoine as he is arrested, the cinematography is shockingly confident for a first-time film. Truffaut has a photographer's sensibility, using the camera to reflect Antoine's subjective self.
For some critics, The 400 Blows builds to its final haunting image, and, in typical Truffaut, it's preceded by a long, long tracking shot as Antoine, unexpectedly, flees. He runs and runs and runs, and we're overwhelmed by the determined rhythm of his breathing, his absolute embrace of freedom. Finally he reaches the sea, the horizon he has always dreamed of, and splashes into the water. But Antoine is alone, and the freeze-frame of his puzzled look back — directly at the camera — makes clear that no matter how fast and how far he runs the world will eventually catch up. If you've not yet seen this classic it's time you caught up.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 27-28, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 29.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].