Monday, February 22, 2010

#5: The 400 Blows

(Francois Truffaut, 1959)

Like Catcher in the Rye, The 400 Blows doesn't do that much for me. I'm not sure why, though, because it really is an excellent movie, full of truth and imbued with a modern sensibility and style of filmmaking that would be copied in the next generation countless times. I had watched it years ago, and it failed to resonate with me, despite the fact that to this day I think Jules and Jim, Truffaut's third feature, is one of the best movies ever made. Over the past few months I had convinced myself that a fresh viewing would change my opinion.

This second viewing definitely improved my view of the movie, but I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a five-star classic. Still, some elements were much stronger this time around: the interweaving of the cinema into the movie, the impeccably edited amusement park scene, a performance by the lead actor that could be easily overlooked because it is so natural.

One thing I thought about when I was done with the film was the question of whether or not you have to feel some auto-biographical connection to a movie in order to appreciate it. Certainly, most people choose films based on their ability to recognize their culture and upbringing in the film. In my work, I often come across people who are white or black complaining that a movie is not for them because there are no people of their own race in the film. Because white films are the "generic" choice in America, white people often believe the conscious decision to make a movie about black people means that the film is not directed at them. Part of this is subtle societal racism, but most of it is the natural inclination of people (and in particular Americans) to be afraid of leaving their comfort zone. Just like a foreign film, a movie about black Americans, they believe, will include cultural references that they will not understand, and therefore cannot connect with, which will leave them either alienated or bored.

While childhood is a slightly but distinctly different matter, I couldn't help but feel that I didn't love the film because I didn't sympathize with the main character. His concerns have never been mine, his problems were not the ones I struggled with as a child. Moreover, unlike a film like Ratcatcher, which seems similarly foreign to me, I had no impression that The 400 Blows was taking me into a different world. In this way, the realism of the film might be held against it, even as I would unquestionably praise the depiction of childhood in the film for its lack of nostalgia and idealism.

I could probably name many movies that I felt less of an auto-biographical connection to than The 400 Blows. But because the movie seems so real and so personal, it is even more difficult to put myself in the shoes of Antoine Doinel. So even as the last image persists in my memory, and many of the film's characters seem vivid hours after viewing the film, I still feel distant from the movie in a way that my favorite films do not make me feel.


  1. Hi.
    I have recently seen this film.
    I appreciated the treatment; made me feel I was inside most of the scenes as an observer but I couldn't, like yourself, put myself in the shoes of the main character so much so that I wasn't able to understand why the film was entitled as such. I was wondering if I missed something: blame it on the distracting subtitles.
    So, why The 400 Blows?
    Thank you.

  2. Bob,

    The title comes from a French saying that roughly translates (depending on whom you ask) to "raising hell" or "sowing your wild oats."

    I'm sure someone who speaks French could explain it in more detail, but the point seems to be that Truffaut wanted to give the viewer the idea that the film was about youthful rebellion.