Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Raising Hell

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.


  1. Here in Sweden, it has become more and more common to translate foreign non-english movie titles into english! The widespread notion being, of course, that everything in english/americanese sounds much cooler than anything else, including our own language. So much for national self esteem...

  2. Is it wrong of me that I own this film and have yet to see it?

    Nice write up Steve. Sam needs to watch more New Wave filmmaking.

  3. 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.”

    I think that's a possibility, but as my friend Charles and I discussed (Charles is fluent in Korean), the idiom "grit" does exist in French and Korean, although the respective equivalents don't have quite the same semantic fields. This doesn't resolve the potential problem for other languages, of course; nor does it really solve the problem for French and Korean (in neither case was the expression "true grit" translated with 100% fidelity).

  4. I don't understand the translation of titles. It would seem to me that it makes sense to translate a film's title to something that has the closest meaning in that language. Eddie Izzard does a bit about this, describing the plot of Speed in French and then saying that in France it was called La Vitesse, or should have been, but was actually called Speed.

    Sam, I cannot tell you how many movies I own that I haven't watched yet. Maybe we should start a support group.

  5. Well, I'm in the club with Sam and SJHoneywell because I've picked up DVDs here and there figuring I'll watch them someday and someday hasn't arrived yet.

    I did know that this film was about Truffault as a kid, but nothing more than that. I don't believe I thought it was going to be about abuse, but it's been several years since I saw it.

    I have to admit that I thought the movie was just okay. I think my expectations were too high, since this is considered one of the classics of French cinema.

  6. Yeah, I purposefully walked away from reading much about it or listening to other people talk about it for that reason. I really enjoyed it, but I see that this would be an easy movie to over-hype.

  7. I pretty much credit this film with my current state of cinephilia. I grew up loving movies, and I grew up loving old movies, so I guess I was already halfway there. But I hadn't tested myself with much foreign stuff, or really anything outside of studio era Hollywood (which has its own sense of familiarity, if you're familiar with it), and then the arthouse cinema near me played this, and I figured I'd check it out. I was about fifteen? Sixteen? I was really affected by it, and I'm pretty sure that's when I really started consciously seeking out all the different kinds of cinema I could find, and started studying and writing about film all I could. So yeah, you could say The 400 Blows is very special to me. :) Even now, I'm not sure I can really describe what it was that hit me so hard about it - but it got under my skin in the way few films have.

  8. I can see that. It's sort of like The Catcher in the Rye. If you read that at the right age, it becomes one of your favorite books. Read it a few years later, and you wonder about the fuss. I can see people of a particular age loving this, then hating it, and then loving it again. I certainly found a lot to like in Antoine here, but as I think back, there are times when I felt similarly cast adrift in my family, particularly around Antoine's age when my parents' divorce happened. So perhaps I gravitated to this film because I felt drawn to his personal feelings of isolation from the rest of his family.

    But now I'm just psychoanalyzing myself.

  9. I hate Catcher in the Rye. :) I was 23 when I read it, and I'm pretty sure that's the reason.

    With The 400 Blows, it's partially the story, but it's more the way the story's told. It was the first film I really realized that you could tell a story almost completely by showing, and that you could be ambiguous, not resolve everything, and that was okay. That you could have a lot of little vignettes of things that didn't really play into the main plot, but still added so much to the atmosphere and sense of realism. That a film could be naturalistic and not amateurish. That you could portray a story like Antoine's and draw sympathy for him, but still have nuance in his character and relationship with his parents (they have truly happy times, which makes the neglect even more palpable). And that you could do all this without being preachy or moralizing, but the story could simply BE and draw you in. Okay, maybe I can put it into words. :) It's obviously more than all that, and Antoine's story did touch me a lot, but it's the way Truffaut told it that turned me into a cinephile.

  10. I understand exactly what you're getting at. It is difficult to put it into words, which in many ways is the magic of film. Seeing the film at my age for the first time, obviously my revelations were different than yours, but I get very much how you got there.

    I hated Catcher in the Rye, too, and for exactly the same reason. I have never wanted to reach into a book and punch a main character more.

  11. I think this movie is very much about abuse. Maybe not physical abuse, but there are other kinds of abuse that are just as bad. Sure, he has some tough luck here and there, but for Antoine the consequences are dispropotionate. Nobody takes a true interest in him and that is what he learns the world thinks of him. I find that quite abusive. But then, any story involving mistreatment of children presses all the wrong buttons for me.

    1. It may well be, but it also may simply be that Antoine is just rebelling the way kids do, and the abuse is merely in his mind. I don't know. I should rewatch this, though.