The 400 Blows & the lightness of being Truffaut.
‘The 400 Blows’ (1959) is one of those revered French movies that is mentioned in every cinephile's favorite list, cutting across continents. The film gifted to the world of celluloid its director - François Roland Truffaut, himself one of the founding members of the ‘French New Wave’ - and world cinema was never the same again.
There are a lot of films where the English titles can’t do justice to the one in the original language. ‘The 400 Blows’ is always mentioned whenever there are discussions of glaringly absurd translations of the original. ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ is the French title, which in turn is derived from the French ‘Faire les quatre cents coup’. The expression in French has a range of meanings – to raise hell, live a life on the wilder side and to sow one's wild oats. In the film, it is more in the sense of ‘un mauvais coup’, that is, "a dirty or mean trick" or the sense of “pulling a stunt”. Language experts felt the film title was poorly translated as ‘The 400 Blows’ in English. ‘400 Tricks’ would have been far more appropriate as a literal translation. For the first American prints, subtitler Noelle Gilmore gave the film the title ‘Wild Oats’, but the distributor did not like that title and went along with ‘The 400 Blows’, which led some to think the film was about corporal punishment. A figurative title like ‘Raising Hell’ would have been ideal. The linguists can keep debating about all that was lost in translation, but in the final analysis, this film by Truffaut, whatever the language and its title, remains the most endearing tale of a young adolescent Antoine Doinel, brilliantly played by Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Antoine is caught between a deeply regimented school system and largely indifferent parents. The sensitive Antoine becomes a rebel on the run and finds himself in the arms of crime. The iconic film is referred to in film History repeatedly, in connection with its director, because of the story’s deep personal association with him. The film was semi-autobiogaphical in nature and one gets a glimpse of the director’s childhood through the engaging one hour and thirty-nine minutes. The associations were too many. Truffaut’s parents too, had little to do with him and his initial years were spent with a wet nurse and then his grandmother. An only child who reluctantly made his way home at the tender age of eight, after his grandmother’s death, was told by his mother in no uncertain terms to be remain inconspicuous. Not fitting into his mother’s scheme of things, he plunged into his own private space of cinema and reading.
The character of the disturbed adolescent ‘Antoine Doinel’ became so personal for Truffaut that a relationship got sealed with the actor ‘Jean-Pierre Léaud’. He would later play the character by the same name and become a part of the series with Truffaut – ‘Stolen Kisses’, ‘Bed and Board’, ‘Love on the Run’ and the 1962 short subject – ‘Antoine and Colette’ – the series dealt with marriage, children, divorce and life thereafter. The fictional character established of Antoine Doinel was referred to as Truffaut’s alter-ego. In the actor Jean-Pierre Leaud’s words – “I always felt that with an Antoine Doinel film, Truffaut was taking a vacation and François could relax when making a Doinel film. All of the language came to him very easily. ‘The 400 Blows’, I felt, was a collage of all his childhood experiences. Every time he felt an Antoine Doinel film was necessary, he'd make one”.
There is not much one could add as a layperson to a classic that is so oft written about. It apparently might hold a record of sorts on the number of articles and analysis done on one single film. I am aware that I am adding to the numbers by writing another one. Perhaps as an educator and dealing with children of that age, what appealed to me was how Truffaut handled the depiction of the protagonist from that age group and gave us insights into the schooling system of that time as well as the juvenile centers.
Children treated in the lead of a classified ‘Children’s film’ is different from adolescents playing the lead otherwise. Truffaut’s œuvre has many a times placed children at the center of his narrative. Many film makers have made children the protagonist but ended up making something a little too maudlin or portraying children unrealistically – as innocent people of God who can do no wrong. Annette Insdorf said of Truffaut’s films that they “constitute a vision of childhood unequaled in the history of the cinema for sensitivity, humor, poignancy and respect for children themselves. With neither sentimentality nor condescension…”
What we see instead is Antoine leading a normal life – one where reactions to his circumstances are relatable. The horror of an insensitive factory system of learning and the wanting acceptance from parents who were too caught up in their own issues. His discovery that his father was a kind fellow who had accepted the illegitimate child of the mother and was not really his biological one – all creates havoc within. Living in a cramped flat his only escape was with that sole friend of his – going to the playground or the magic of cinema to leave his angst and childhood woes behind.
The similarity with Antoine had not ended with not getting his mother’s attention or living with his grandmother – Truffaut too was deemed a failure at school and then ran away from home. His step-father turned him in to the police and he later ended up in a reform school.
The schooling system of the 1950s seems sadly no different than the one we grew up within India in the 1970s and 80s. There was a thrust on discipline and rote learning in the name of character building. Even today despite all the emphasis on innovation and breaking away from memorizing facts and figures, creativity in school teaching, assignments and projects remains only on paper in many parts of the world.
In ‘The 400 Blows’ the children are lectured daily on their immorality. Truffaut shows us a regular boys’ school with all normal madness and raging hormones. An exasperated School master (Guy Decomble) stares as he fails miserably in controlling the rowdy elements in the class. There is hooting and graffiti on the walls. In fact, the movie opens with the passing around of the pin-up of a nude female circulating among a group of prepubescent boys – backbenchers and the front row students alike. The cruel master discovers it in Antoine Doinel’s hands and that becomes the growing point of antagonism between Antoine and the adults around him – primarily the school authorities and the parents. Antoine starts to play hooky regularly. Meanwhile at home there are open conversations of packing him off to a boarding school. The mother is plagued by her economic status and the near poverty they live in and finds her stepson extremely troublesome. There is a scene when he witnesses his mother kissing a colleague – one she is having an affair with. This further distances him from her. The stepfather is affable yet unable to gauge his needs.
We have Antoine judged for his reports and marks and it sets me thinking how little things have changed in society terms of parental and school pressures. The response of Antoine too, to such a system seems familiar – his lies on homework start with illness and land up with his bumping of his mother. The consequences of such lies needless to say end up in further alienation. Antoine on being questioned later in the correctional facility says “I lie… but only once in a while. At times, if I told the truth, they wouldn’t believe me. So, I tell lies”.
“What will France be like 10 years from now”? Or the French teacher saying, “Poor France, what future waits for you”, has an uncanny ring to it. In retrospect if we see that around a decade later, France was in unprecedented turmoil – both political and social and of a scale unprecedented since the Liberation and the end of World War II. May 1968 saw students on the streets clamoring for a change of the world order. These perhaps were the children of a decade ago thinking - “We don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control” much before Pink Floyd’s song became an anthem for freedom. The petit bourgeois milieus and the regimentation that the children started resenting. It was Antoine who was the protagonist here. At another level it was almost every student in the classroom of the times, wanting to break free and not shoulder the responsibility of being ‘bright students’ who would bring glory to the French civilization.
Along with the excesses of the post-world war education system, the story of Antoine on the run brought out the nightmares and the gross injustices in the treatment of juvenile offenders in France of that time. His dropping out from school leads to a series of events including staying on the sly with a friend and stealing his stepfather’s typewriter. On being caught, the only recourse seems a juvenile court that determines future course of action for Antoine. There is no human factor in consideration. Instead, the parents are told that he will be equipped with life skills and readied for a world and by that they seal his fate and send him to a reformation observation center. From one system that did not understand him to another, Antoine was on the run from a life he didn’t want to live – landing up in another that shattered whatever vestiges of innocence and joy, childhood still had for him. I am reminded of what Michel Foucault says on thought control - “Schools serve the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions – to define, classify, control, and regulate people”. Two Heart wrenching scenes linger. He is temporarily holed up in a cell with seasoned prostitutes and thieves. For all of Antoine’s previous escapades like theft and running away from home and all the so-called adult experiences, his vulnerability comes across in these few scenes – exposing him for what he is – a child wishing he had been understood by parents and school. It is a dark street of Paris that is not the postcard “City of Lights” that night. It is a cold winter night when we see Antoine with his face peering through the bars of the police wagon.
That the film is not morose or depressing even though it deals with a subject like this is the hallmark of a François Truffaut film, what later became identifiable and ran through most of his films. I would call it - ‘The lightness of being Truffaut’. Be it a ‘Jules et Jim’ (Jules and Jim , 1962) dealing with a love triangle set around the first world war that meets a tragic end, be it ‘Le Dernier Métro’(The Last Metro 1980) that is a historical drama set in 1942 that revolves around the fortunes of a theatre company and resistance in German occupied France or be it crime drama like ‘Tirez sur le pianiste' (Shoot the Piano Player – 1960) – the master’s touch is such that you don’t leave the theatre with gloom but with birdsong in your heart.
‘The 400 Blows’ is peppered with the most delectable humor. There is a scene when the parents discuss how Antoine could have possibly lied to the school about the mother’s death. His mother feels that he could have chosen to do away with the father in his excuse. To which Antoine’s stepfather replies that it was an obvious matter of preference for the child.
Another scene that has one chuckling is the iconic scene when Antoine lights a candle to Balzac, which sets the little cardboard shrine on fire. His parents douse the flames, but in an uncharacteristic and unguarded moment, the parents laugh this misadventure off. Instead of reprimanding him or being at loggerheads with each other. They decide to go to the movies. Antoine is seen for the child that he is beneath – laughing and soaking in normal family time.
Some scenes are identifiable from our collective childhoods too – spilling ink and making a mess of our hands to the teacher’s dismay or wiping some grease or similar stuff on the furniture on the sly and the thrill of not being caught. Antoine wipes his coal-stained hands on his parents’ curtains without batting an eyelid. The nicknames given to teachers leave one reminiscing one’s childhood. Here it is ‘Sourpuss’ who catches Antoine with the pinup nude photograph being passed in that opening scene.
An ultimate example of the dry humor lies in a dialogue between the Judge and Mrs. Doinel when she meets him to decide what is to be done with her son – the wayward Antoine. The judge in all seriousness says, “I think we should place your child under observation in a special home”. To which Mrs. Doinel replies, “Could it be by the sea, Your Honor”?
Remarkable about the film is that even Antoine’s parents, are not portrayed as villains. They are what they are – fatigued by their jobs, desperately wanting to better their lot. Add to that the mother caught up in an affair. They are seen as just as helpless in an adult world, as their son is in his. They can see their son drift but are ill equipped to cope or have the right solutions. They too are drifting and looking for answers in their far from happy marriage and respective workplaces. Not every parent gets the parenting formula right nor is it always inborn is what we must also remember.
It was not just Antoine running away from school and home – but a breaking away from all that was hitherto considered the fundamentals of cinema – and getting into a new wave of experimentation. ‘The 400 Blows’ satisfied Truffaut emotionally in getting what the French New Wave wanted – the departure from French mainstream films as they observed that the stories were not in sync with the world around them and depicting human emotions naturally. It was a time when the auteur theory was gaining currency.
The style of the film is one devoid of theatrics. The children used were of the same age they played. Right from the first few films of the ‘French New Wave’ there was a distinct freshness and a marked departure from films of a previous era. The camera rests the gaze on the children and past the authority figures. It is the children’s perspective that stands out and pulls subtly at the heart strings. In one scene Antoine is hiding behind his bed and the father storms into the room. It is only we the audience who see Antoine. This use of the camera illustrates the children’s contempt for and distrust of these figures of authority. We as the audience can’t but help take our sides.
In an interview from 1959, the director Truffaut explained that he and writing partner Marcel Moussy were only trying to reflect the reality of adolescence. “If there was a thesis behind our film – it would be this: adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who can’t remember”.
When you love a film that much, it really doesn’t matter that you are writing about a giant of a film that is clearly not needing any endorsement from an average cinephile. As an educator who has been surrounded by students struggling because of schooling and parenting that doesn’t understand them and evaluates their individual worth only by their ‘report cards’, this film has a resonance. Poignant and humorous, this Truffaut film hangs between comedy and tragedy - a film I intend to ask both my students and the parents to watch.
Vandana Kumar is a French language teacher, translator, interpreter, cinephile and a poet of international repute. She lives in Delhi.