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The 400 Blows

Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A+
Video/Audio/Extras: A+/A+/A+

Directed by: Francois Truffaut
Written by: Francois Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
Produced by: Francois Truffaut
Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claude Maurier, Albert Remy, Guy Decomble, Georges Flamant
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Buy it!

How can one describe a film they adore? How can one realistically analyse a movie they feel is unrivalled in the history of cinema? In short: with great difficulty.

As you've hopefully picked up already, The 400 Blows is one of my favourite films of all time. More significantly however, it is one of those movies so brilliant that it is almost impossible to put your adulation into words. Some films are easy to critique, even if you love them. Keep in mind, I have written reviews in the past for some of my favourite films, movies such as Blue Velvet or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Nevertheless The 400 Blows feels almost too personal to analyse. Maybe its because I have often felt that Antoine Doinel, the French masterpiece's central protagonist, is too much like myself. His life is shockingly similar to my own. And this may be why I have held off analysing the film for such a long time. All of this feels too raw, too personal to be a review.

And so first off I must apologise if the following analysis seems to be a touch too narcissistic. I'm sorry if I spend too much time referring to myself. But, I must push on nevertheless. The 400 Blows is the tale of a juvenile delinquent, Antoine Doinel, who is shouted at by his parents and teachers almost constantly. He feels trapped by his mediocre existence, hemmed in by forces he cannot contemplate or understand. As sappy as this plot outline sounds, The 400 Blows avoids gushy emotion at every step. Instead of filling the soundtrack with fluttering violins or shooting every single scene with a variety of close-ups, Francois Truffaut (the film's director, who just so happens to be one of my idols) hangs back constantly. Never does he exploit his characters with music or soppy camera angles. The story is told as quietly as possible, ensuring that the audience is not presented with a two-dimensional central character.

In fact, the strength of the characters makes the film. Antoine's parents for example, could have been exploited easily to stir up audience sympathy for the central character. In the hands of a lesser director these two figures could have become two-dimensional caricatures, cardboard cut-outs who abuse Antoine for no real reason. But by creating a real sense of audience sympathy for Antoine's mother and father Truffaut ensures we are torn to shreds emotionally. Scenes in which Antoine listens to his parents scream at each other in the cramped bedroom next door are devastating. The audience loves Antoine's parents as much as they love the boy himself and are torn between two loyalties as a result. We can see why Antoine's mother and father despair when he makes up barefaced lies or steals a typewriter from his dad's work. But at the same time we are emotionally connected to Antoine.

Truffaut also makes sure information about Antoine's past is revealed as slowly as possible. Instead of filling the script with heart-felt speeches about painful incidents of the past, the ingenious director reveals information suddenly, without any build up. As a result The 400 Blows becomes cinema verite of the unrivalled kind: the movie feels not as much like a cinematic experience, but more like life. Truffaut's direction is second to none. His brilliant mise-en-scene is almost as intelligent as his script, forcing the audience to unravel layer after layer of meaning. For example, Truffaut paints intelligent (and subtle) similarities between Antoine and his mother. Both feel trapped in different ways: one memorable set piece depicts Antoine on a ride at a local theme park, staring up at the spectators surrounding him. The camera is low, throwing the audience into Anotine's shoes. We too feel trapped, hemmed in by spectators who seem almost menacing in their stature. Similarly, Truffaut traps Antoine's mother through clever camera angles. In one scene the woman sits in front of the mirror, surrounded by her own reflection. She too is trapped in her own moral swamp and like Anotine she has no idea how to escape.

The film brilliantly explores the dangerous rift between children and adults. Older characters find it impossible to communicate with the 'new' generation and seem confused by the actions of children. But this is just the short of it. Truffaut also explores the hypocrisy of adults in a world where middle aged men and women seem more immature than their children. In one scene Truffaut cuts from Antoine carefully making his own bed in a paper mill, where he has been forced to sleep, to his mother arguing immaturely with his father. This simple edit forces the audience to question that old saying that with age comes wisdom. Is it possible that the older we become, the more foolish we actually are?

But it is impossible for me to put the brilliance of The 400 Blows into words. Sure I can analyse the mise-en-scene, the script and the themes. But no words will ever capture what the film really means to me. Every time I see the movie I become closer and closer to Antoine. As I have stated above, the boy seems to be my own brother.

If you do watch the film, you might not end up liking it as much as me. Perhaps it's a personal thing.
Or perhaps you will see a movie so emotional devastating you'll never forget it.
Perhaps you'll see a story about a boy trapped by the hypocrisy of adults.
Or perhaps you'll see one of the most raw, emotional tales ever captured on film.

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