Film: Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
(This review is a part of the Blind Spots series. See others in the series for February at The Matinee.)
My long-time internet bro Kevin, aka Big Hominid, posted something a few months ago concerning his frustration that movie titles are often left untranslated from English, causing films like True Grit to be released in Korea with a Koreanized version of the American title. The problem as I see it, though, is that idiom is difficult to translate, creating the possibility that another culture might translate an idiom like “true grit” as “actual sand.” This is the case with a film like Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows). I went into this film cold, and based on the title assumed that it would be about a kid who was badly abused. Turns out that the title is part of a French idiom meaning to raise hell.
The film concerns Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young boy with a number of problems. He’s misdirected, bored, and somewhat listless. He has no interest in school and also happens to have ferociously bad luck. When a pin-up girl’s picture is passed around the class, it happens to be in Antoine’s possession when the teacher (Guy Decomble) spots it, getting Antoine in trouble. He earns extra homework as his punishment, and when he doesn’t finish, he skips school instead of admitting it.
And yet this is not a dumb kid. In his spare time, he reads Balzac, and when he writes an essay in class, plagiarizes shamelessly from his favorite author. But it’s worth noting that he plagiarizes so shamelessly from memory. For this he is expelled, as is his friend Rene (Patrick Auffay). The two, now with no school to worry about, become petty criminals. Antoine hides out in Rene’s room. It soon becomes evident that neither boy has much of a home life. Neither one is mistreated, but neither one gets much attention or affection. Since they are both constantly in trouble, their parents simply treat them as delinquents.
Eventually, the boys steal a typewriter from Antoine’s step-father’s business. When they can’t find a buyer, he tries to return it, and is caught. His parents, not wanting to deal with him any longer, force him to spend a night in jail and then send him off to the French equivalent of a juvenile camp for wayward boys, not that he lasts long. He escapes at his first opportunity.
Evidently, the film is highly autobiographical of Francois Truffaut, who led a life of petty juvenile crime and spent as much time as he could in a theater as a boy. It was the movies that in many ways saved his life. It also may well be the reason that the portrayal of Antoine is as sympathetic as it is. Additionally, we learn eventually that many of his problems seem to stem from the fact that he seems to be little more than an afterthought and a burden to his parents. He isn’t abused in any way, but there is no question that he is neglected. And because of this neglect, he is unmoored in the world, unable to find direction because no one in his life cares enough to put him on a path.
And so, there is a definite touch of tragedy to the film in that he is essentially forced to grow up on his own. There is very much a feeling through the film that he’s not a bad kid despite the things that he seems to get up to. His virtual abandonment followed by his actual abandonment by the end of the film simply underscores that tragedy. At the same time, there’s a part of me that thinks the kid is better off without his folks.
This most definitely is not the film I thought it was going to be, and yet in many ways I wasn’t too far off. Certainly I believed that there must be some level of physical abuse in the film, a fact that is not in any way changed by the picture of young Antoine on the cover of the DVD case looking mournfully through the bars of a cage. There is no physical abuse, of course, but that doesn’t mean that Antoine hasn’t been badly used by his indifferent parents.
It’s also one of the better performances I’ve seen from a young actor. Leaud was in his early teens when this film was shot, but he gives an adult performance, one of a seasoned actor who already knows his craft. This role of Antoine is one that he reprised multiple times in his career for Truffaut. Based on that, I’m curious to see the other, later films that chronicle Antoine’s life. It helps that I’m predisposed to like Truffaut, and the fact that Antoine is an interesting and likeable character certainly doesn’t hurt.
Why to watch Les Quatre Cent Coups: A formative film of the French New Wave.
Why not to watch: The story isn’t what you think it is from the title.