The 400 Blows 1959 ★★★★★

Rewatched Oct 212020

joshmatthews’s review published on Letterboxd:

Trying to poke holes in this classic, after studying it, I’ve come to appreciate it even more than on casual viewing.

Besides Truffaut as a critic and his autobiographical material here, “The 400 Blows” is a story of a thousand stories. Most frames reminded me of something else I’d read or seen — Dickens, obviously, and Tom Sawyer. And “The Stranger” and Bresson’s movies. The list just goes on, plus the works that came after it, including “A Clockwork Orange,” sync up with this “boy’s life” tale of a wronged, young French boy.

And the movie turns into kind of a “wronged man” story, ala Hitchcock, and kind of a prison-break story as well. Truffaut sets you up really well for the famous ending, and I am stunned again that this is partly a prison-escape movie, even though the first 3/4s of the film doesn’t obviously head towards that. 

“The 400 Blows” is a movie of a thousand doorways. Well, maybe only several dozen. But our hero, young Doinel, passes through so many early on — and so many seemingly meaninglessly — until we get to the last couple of “doorways”. Those include the fence he ducks under, and then the bridge he hides behind and then dashes underneath on his way to the sea. At first, the numerous gateways take him nowhere except to his doom; they aren’t doors to heaven or ascension. And yet the ending once again uses the long setup to show us that, yes, he’s made it to a place of crossing or wandering or transition: the mighty sea itself, famous film symbol of transition used in Bergman and Mizoguichi and Cuaron and the list goes on.

Another way that the ending sets us up: it shows us Doinel as a still-point yet moving. In the shots where he’s running, he’s a static figure while the landscape is moving, but that is because the camera is moving with him. Yes, we are taking Doinel’s journey too. It’s related to the opening shot during the credits of the Eiffel Tower being the still point while the city moves around it, as we move.

Pretty basically, the open city and the sea are free spaces in which Doinel and the boys wander, while the cramped school and apartment and jail contain everybody. The opening school scenes echo the cry of Pink Floyd’s infamous rebel song, “we don’t need no education!” Doinel could chant that.

He’s constrained by the dreaded Systems of Education, Prison, and even Family. The movie makes us root for him, partly because he’s too young to be constrained, too little to be treated as these systems treat him: as a singular adult responsible for his petty actions. He’s just a kid, after all.

So “The 400 Blows” is an existential classic, the hero restrained by a society that fails to comprehend his wants. He, after all, desires to be like Balzac — free to write and think and be. I suppose this is partly why the movie reminds me of Camus.

Doinel is controlled and constrained by writing throughout, a forebearer of the poststructuralist cry that we are constructed by language, all too readily, and we ought to beware of its unjust powers. He sleeps in a printing press, he’s forced to write and erase words, and he’s forced into a testimony written down by the cops. Dozens of other examples exist, including all of the signs that point him in a direction or label him or comment on him. Not long after this, Godard played with these ideas, but of course Orson Welles led the way in “Citizen Kane,” with writing/media constructing a person, unjustly or too narrowly.

This is arguable: the child actor who plays Doinel is quite good, even great. Truffaut achieves natural performances and captures ordinary life, seemingly, nodding to the Italian neo-realists and yet using a moving camera, numerous dissolves and fade-outs, and of course the famous final shot to construct a new-enough kind of movie hero. This one shows up in Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” and pretty much any tale where a rascal is unjustly controlled and chained by some larger System, one of the more common themes of 20th century art.

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