Director: François Truffaut
Writer: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy
DP: Henri Decaë
Editor: Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte
Score: Jean Constantin
Producer: François Truffaut, Georges Charlot
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, Patrick Auffay, Guy Decomble
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 1 hr. 40 min.
The way The 400 Blows observes its main character, 14-year-old schoolboy Antoine Doinel, shifts back and forth between proximity and distance. Sometimes it lets us in on his subjective reality; sometimes it shows him as a part of a bigger, intersubjective reality, illustrating the balance of power under which he lives. We can see how thoughtful, sympathetic guidance might change his life for the better; we can also see that he's not getting any.
Antoine has his behavior scrutinized by various authority figures throughout the film, and each of them judges him to be a delinquent. While it's true that he often fails to abide by their rules or commands, the film shows us the events that lead to every instance of his troublemaking, and we know that there's more circumstance behind it than anyone would immediately see from outside. Not only does none of the authority figures in the film understand this; they make no attempt to understand it. They expect punishment to condition him to behave how they want him to, but they never give him the tools he needs to do that.
Take, for example, a sequence in which Antoine copies a passage from Balzac for an essay. He's trying to pay homage; he appreciates Balzac's work keeps a shrine to Balzac in his room. But his teacher sees it as plagiarism, even when Antoine sincerely protests and his friends support him. The teacher makes no attempt to find an explanation or underlying cause for Antoine's behavior, and apparently no one ever taught Antoine the difference between homage and plagiarism.
Ironically, this manifestation of poor guidance directly follows the only moments in the film when anyone offers Antoine good counsel. His mother had promised him 1000 francs if he did well on his essay. She makes this offer after asking him, with genuine concern, to share his problems with her, and it's more than just a bribe: it's a secret between them they'll keep from Antoine's stepfather; his mother made an attempt at intimacy after trying to understand him.
The camera captures the breadth and collective life of Paris with wide shots of various city environments. However, it singles out the child characters whenever they create mischief, and will change positions to match their eye level in moments when they're free from the eyes of authority. It shows that when the children misbehave, they're taking for themselves a brief moment of relief from circumstances that constantly demand things from them without offering anything obvious in return.
These moments of relief drive the film's plot. It has a loose structure, but the status quo continually shifts out of Antoine's favor until he runs out of options. Though his little episodes of mischief-making offer him a temporary comfort, when they're over, the authorities in his life keep an even closer and less sympathetic watch over him. At least the camera has sympathy for his situation, capturing him against large backgrounds or relegated into small spaces in complex environments, lamenting his subjection.
And yet, the film takes on a playful tone when Antoine is out on his own in the city, and in one scene, in which Antoine's mother and stepfather stop policing him and take him out to see Paris Belongs to Us, Paris comes to life in bright lights that pierce through the night. In the final moments before Antoine's life finally goes completely out of control and he has to leave Paris behind, we see it again the same way, from his own point of view. There's such potential for him in the city, but he can't access it.
Though the film takes on the eye of someone who could offer Antoine proper guidance, he never gets enough of it. The film can't give it to him, but it maintains its sympathy: in the end, it takes one of Antoine's ephemeral escapes, and preserves it.