Monday, November 16, 2009
The Kids Aren't All Right
By Jonathan Pacheco
The first time I saw The 400 Blows a couple of years ago, I walked away unimpressed, seeing it as a solid film, but one that was "about" a lot less than most people thought. I credited the film's praise mostly to its relationship with the French New Wave, or to people's infatuation with the heavily autobiographical threads that François Truffaut wove throughout the film — aspects of the film that, at the time, seemed irrelevant to my viewing experience.
Watching the film a second time, I've realized that some of these aspects are incredibly relevant. The 400 Blows is a film distinctly shaped by Truffaut (and, to an extent, his lead, Jean-Pierre Léaud), and an extremely personal piece, much like the novel of a passionate, aspiring writer. I don't label it as "extremely personal" because I've looked up trivia to find out what in the film did or didn't actually occur in Truffaut's childhood. I'm able to say it because the details in the film make it so obvious. Since The 400 Blows, there have been countless films involving troubled kids raising Cain and keeping their parents stocked with ulcers. We're used to the rebellious child, to the character who acts out when he feels unloved. Yet, 50 years later, Truffaut's film still stands out from the crowd thanks to the sincerity and truth in the emotions and depictions of his characters.
When Antoine reveals that his mother desired an abortion upon realizing she was pregnant with him, it doesn't shock me (even though, these days, the sole purpose of a revelation like that is to shock), but when he tells the story about the book his grandmother gave him, and how his mother confiscated it as punishment, eventually selling the book, I'm moved. I realize I've never seen that moment on film before. More significantly, I realize that a detail like that is so specific that it must be real. And I realize that this is what people talk about when they praise the autobiographical details of The 400 Blows. As a director, Truffaut knows that truth and sincerity aren't conjured up from thin air, they come from a place within you.
If you've ever been in a college Creative Writing class full of beginners, you know that many stories feel contrived, underdeveloped, and clichéd, but they almost always contain that detail or two, those moments that feel so sincere, you know they're straight from the author's life. You encourage the writer to capture what they've created in that moment. To quote a recent episode of Friday Night Lights, that's the part that didn't make you want to vomit. Watching The 400 Blows, I was constantly impressed with Truffaut's ability to form a film predominantly from those very moments.
As a character, Antoine isn't diabolical, he's just not much of a thinker. The 12 year-old spends his days clowning around in school and playing hooky just like most other kids his age, except he's got a special knack for getting caught. The fact that he doesn't seem to care to stop is what drives his parents and teachers nuts. This second time watching The 400 Blows, Jean-Pierre Léaud's performance as Antoine resonated with me more than I expected. He and Truffaut didn't create a perfect angel victimized by the devils of society, nor did they create an exceptionally malicious hell-raiser, despite the implications of the film's title (after all, half of the time Antoine does something bad, he's doing it with a friend by his side). As far as the director is concerned, judgment or pity towards his lead character is kept to a minimum; it's all about being frank.
Despite some of the film's (unsuccessful?) attempts to explain the boy's behavior, Antoine exists as somewhat of an enigma, always brandishing a blank expression despite his constant punishments. It's almost maddening, as we try to read the boy in hopes of figuring out what the heck is wrong with him. It also makes the film's quiet climax — the moment he's carted off by the police — even more affecting, as it's the one occasion in the film that the boy cries. His tears are barely visible in the stark black-and-white darkness of the scene, but that moment adds a wrinkle to a character that nearly everyone agrees is a lost cause.
Antoine's usual blank look also makes the famous final shot of the film deliciously ambiguous. As the boy runs to the ocean — a sight he's never before seen — it's a last-ditch attempt at freedom. Antoine longs to be a man, to do his own thing, and having been abandoned by his parents, he strikes out on his own. Yet, when he finally arrives at the beach, he unenthusiastically splashes in the water for a moment before turning around and looking straight into the camera with that same impassive expression. Is he happy? Is he disappointed or disillusioned? Maybe he's not any of those; it's difficult to tell. I wonder if it's another one of those Truffaut details from his own life: he knows something significant has happened, he just isn't sure what.