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The 400 Blows (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on January 25, 2013

It’s been a while since I last watched the Antoine Doinel movies, about six and a half years.  One reason was that I kept hoping Criterion would release the whole set on Blu-Ray, and not just this film.  Another reason is that as much as I’ve enjoyed these films in the past, I haven’t felt a strong personal connection to them.  Dropping this one off my top 100 when I revised it last summer was a fairly easy decision.  It isn’t a film that defines me as a filmlover.

But… I can still say I love this movie.  Léaud is an absolute marvel, and offhand I can’t think of a better child performance.  I have no complaints about anything he does here, it’s as genuine and endearing and nuanced a job as you could hope for.  He’s cute when he needs to be cute (soaking in the joy of a night at the movies with his folks) but never cloyingly so.  He’s sullen when he needs to be sullen (unjustly punished for infractions that aren’t his fault) but never pouty and whiny.  His delivery sounds exactly like what you would expect from a boy his age… albeit in a language I don’t understand.  He’s a little bit tough and a little bit vulnerable.

And a little bit stupid.  Antoine makes mistakes, a lot of them.  Of course he does, he’s a child.  He hasn’t developed the capacity to fully fathom the consequences of his actions.  As adults, we know he’ll never get away with writing in the corner he’s been banished to, or claiming that he missed school because his mother died.  These are the impulsive acts of youth, you can’t blame him.

All around him, he sees hypocrisy and deception.  His father (stepfather, we later learn… as we learn he’s known all along) talks about teaching a co-worker how to fudge an expense report.  He catches his mother in an illicit embrace.  His mother bribes him for his silence, showering him with affection when before she could hardly be bothered to acknowledge him.  Antoine isn’t living an Oliver Twist existence.  He doesn’t get beaten by his parents or bullied at school.  Although decidedly lower-class, he has a roof over his head and food on the table.  Truffaut (basing much of the story on his own experiences) doesn’t feel the need to stack the deck this way.  Antoine isn’t the victim of unspeakable abuse, just subtle neglect and insidious dishonesty.  He’s also the victim of his own bad choices, but these are normal for a youngster… testing the boundaries of your freedom.

And Truffaut is testing the boundaries of his freedom.  The film doesn’t exhibit as much exhilarating formal experimentation as his next few films, but it feels very free.  There’s not a dull scene in it, everything seems to have a purpose while not being rigidly structured.  It is wrong to say the movie doesn’t have a plot, but it uses emotional beats to move Antoine Doinel towards its conclusion as much as it uses story beats.  Character development becomes plot development, and vice versa.

Other terrific things: the centrifuge ride.  The solace and escape that Antoine finds in the cinema.  Swiping a snapshot of Harriet Andersson from the theater.  Albert Rémy as Antoine’s fun-loving (but not especially nurturing) stepfather.  Richard Kanayan having a devil of a time with a notebook and an inkwell.  A flock of pigeons flying into the camera.  Jean Constantin’s lovely, lyrical score.  The streets of Paris.  Lighting a candle for Balzac.

It will remain off my top 100 list.  I don’t have quite the emotional reaction to it that many others seem to have.  But it is a marvelous piece of work.  Rating: Great (94)

IMDb
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