Sunday, December 6, 2015

The 400 Blows

Antoine may well be a genius, but he can't focus on his homework, other than his voracious reading of Balzac.  So enamored of the author is the boy that his teacher accuses him of plagiarism when he writes an essay in such an erudite style.  Antoine is often forced to spend the hour in a corner of the classroom.  His home life is likewise quite dismal: cramped flat with two parents who are always working.  One weekend his father is away at the races, leaving the boy completely alone. Antoine barely has space in which to sleep, and seems to his elders as merely something else to step over or around.   The parents are not necessarily bad people, even showing signs of proper disciplining and affection here and there, but they are self-centered, distracted.

I found myself frustrated and angry (though sometimes understanding) with these so-called adults: Gilberte (Claire Maurier) clearly resents having to care for a child and carries on an affair with a co-worker.  Stepfather Julien (Albert Remy) is an amiable enough chap but always seems to lack that extra follow through to reign in the kid.  When habitual liar Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) accidentally nearly burns down the apartment and turns to petty crime both adults are all too willing to rescind their rights to his guardianship and send him to an "observation center" for troubled youths.   The only joy we ever see among the family is a night out at the movies, unsurprising in a story by Francois Truffaut and that it is more than a little autobiographical for him. 

And Truffaut's 1959 debut THE 400 BLOWS is such a perfect movie that I wouldn't change a beat, or a frame.  Its story and themes will seem old hat to those who don't remember the film's original release, but what remains as fresh as ever is a certain purity, a film untainted by corny sentiment or a multitude of subplots.  There are moments that are heartbreaking in their matter-of-factness (note the jail scene) because they feel hopeless and cold, the way they really would.  Truffaut is an artist and fashions his movie with just the right bleakness but never resorts to heavy handedness in the process.  He ends scenes at the right moment, where other directors might feel the need to punctuate with something clever or verbose.  To over explain something.

THE 400 BLOWS' impact is felt at every moment, with a lovely performance by Leaud, who would play this character in several later Truffaut dramas.  I've watched his psychiatry interview scene several times, a quietly stunning bit of film.  When we reach the end of the story, the freeze frame zoom is as evocative as any finale I've seen. 
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