When this film ended, I made a confused noise. Roommate Russ asked me about it, and when I explained myself, he just chuckled and said “Welcome to the French New Wave.”
He explained a bit. The 400 Blows is an early example of this French film movement – one that sought to shake up the French film industry through innovation in techniques as well as subject matter. Changing editing and narrative conventions were a particular focus, Roommate Russ said – the filmmakers made no bones about the fact that film was make-believe, and would think nothing of using jump cuts, super-long tracking shots, random scenes with the extras that just seemed cool at the time, or actors addressing the camera, or just wordlessly staring into it. The bit that confused me was that the story I’d been following throughout seemed to suddenly and arbitrarily stop, as opposed to giving me a more conventional ending.
Mind you, I mightn’t have noticed – or cared – that this story just sort of ended if everything that preceded that ending hadn’t captivated me as much. It’s the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a rough-around-the-edges Parisian boy of about twelve or thirteen. Antoine is something of a lackluster student who frequently locks horns with a particularly mean teacher (Guy Delcombe), and then scolded by his less-than-supportive parents (Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier). His behavior degrades from school pranks to playing hooky to outright theft, and by the end he’s sent off to a reform school, where his mother visits him only once to tell him that she and his stepfather are washing their hands of him.
I know that sounds like a Teen Melodrama, but on the contrary – what captivated me is how realistic and nuanced the story was. Antoine isn’t the only kid catching flak from their teacher, and he’s not even the only kid acting up – there’s an amusing scene where an entire classroom of bored students all clown around and act up when their teacher turns to write on the board, all of them stopping instantly when he turns back to them. Or another whole sequence where the gym teacher is leading the whole class out on a job through the surrounding Paris streets; and in a long overhead tracking shot, we watch as at every streetcorner or street crossing, two or three kids each slip away from the pack to go cavort on their own. By the end of the sequence our gym teacher’s pack of about 30 kids has dwindled down to a little group of six.
Antoine’s parents are also presented as less-than-ideal – but aren’t abusive or cruel. Just…frustrated with him, and with their lives. They live in a cramped apartment – but it’s clean. Stepfather Julien is trying to do good, he’s trying to bond with Antoine, and mother Gilberte is also trying to help things out with a part-time job – but Julien’s job is an entry-level grind, and Gilberte is a former teen mother who’s getting bitter. Even so, there’s a sweet scene where the whole family goes to a movie together and has a fantastic time, the ongoing family squabbles temporarily forgotten. No one in this family is an outright monster; they’re just ordinary people who’ve been dealt bad hands and who are finding they aren’t able to work with them as well as they’d hoped.
The performances are also nuanced and realistic – especially Léaud as Antoine. There’s a sequence where he’s in the reform school and his counselor has asked him to tell his story – and we get a whole lot of Antoine’s backstory in a sequence of clipped-together monologues, where we finally learn that Gilberte has been borderline neglectful and that Antoine’s also been misbehaving for a good while prior to our tale. And Léaud delivers it all in a matter-of-fact, almost bored fashion; he’d rather lie to his parents because that’s what they expect, school’s boring so he skips, it is what it is, meh. The only time we see Antoine look really upset is when his best friend René (Patrick Auffay) tries to visit him in the reform school – the security guard won’t let René in, so they’re stuck forlornly looking at each other through the glass doors before the guard shoos René off.
So I was invested in Antoine and his story, and that’s why the abrupt ending felt all the more jarring.
(Incidentally, a fun fact – the title The 400 Blows is an overly-literal translation of the actual French title Les Quatre Cents Coups, which refers to a French expression (“faire les quatre cents coups“) which roughly translates into “Raising Hell”. The original “English” name chosen for the film was Wild Oats, but the distributor insisted on that more literal, if baffling, translation instead.)