Poster Credit: The Criterion Collection
The 400 Blows is a 1959 feature film directed by Francois Truffaut. It was released as part of the French New Wave. The only other film I had watched earlier as a part of my 7th semester while I was studying for my Bachelor’s in Media Studies at SZABIST Dubai was Breathless by Jean-Luc Goddard. Breathless was a pioneering part of the French New Wave as Goddard wanted to show a film which was the opposite of the American blockbusters during that time. For example, the car chase sequence in Breathless lasts only for a few minutes while dialogues go on and on, but in mainstream Hollywood pictures, even to this day, the cases are reversed. The French New Wave directors “rejected formalism and tradition in favour of a punky new ethos”.
In The 400 Blows, there are slight familiarities to Breathless, besides being shot in black and white. My initial thought upon seeing the movie in monochrome led me to believe it was released much later on as being shot and released in color back then made the films actually seem as if they were made during the 1950s/1960s. But on my second watch, I realized how the cinematography shed the whole flick in a classic light (besides the version I was watching being a 1998 DVD version). The 400 Blows and Breathless both are character-driven not event orientated. From the first scene onwards, we know that juvenile delinquency will be the main topic of the feature when a pin-up poster is passed around in class only for the wrong boy (the protagonist, Antoine Doinel) to be punished for originally distributing it.
The first aspect which comes to one’s mind when viewing the film especially for the foremost time is that the primary theme is definitely nostalgia. Even the black and white color grading could be seen as a testament to that mood as it evokes nostalgia of when we were children. Although, I was brought up in the United Arab Emirates where life wasn’t as modern as in France (even during the mid-20th century), I can still relate to the children depicted in The 400 Blows. Literature was also one of my favorite classes during my school years, and it happens to be central to the narrative of this movie. The teachers in the film also reminded me of my own teachers, the English teacher reminded me of my Arabic teacher who was also trolled by our class. The scenes where the children started making kissy sounds and doing sensual moves behind the teacher while the teacher knew what was going behind his or her back were also relatable.
What I couldn’t relate to was the overall society of France. As I mentioned earlier, even during that time period, France was much more modern than UAE was in the 2000s, at least where I went to school or lived in which was a small town known as Al Ain. So, seeing prostitutes or even the protagonist’s mother (Claire Maurier) having an affair in public were not factors I was accustomed to. Not to mention the clothing of the characters was unfamiliar especially seeing children dressed up in suits. But better clothing was also what led me to guess that Doinel’s best friend Rene Bigey (Patrick Auffay) was from a rich family compared to Doinel’s middle class household.
One of the most interesting parts of the story was the mother trying to cover up her affair by indirectly convincing her son to do so. The son saw the mother having an affair when the kid himself was skipping school. Later on, the son tells his teacher that his mother his dead, which in a metaphorical sense could be that she is dead to him. Then when he is caught he spends the night in an abandoned printing press until the next day when he is reunited with his mother and she showers him with hugs and kisses, only to bribe him into writing a literary essay which would get in the top five of the class, and which backfired, as he plagiarized the essay and was dismissed from the class. I believe that the reason for Doinel acting out throughout The 400 Blows was mainly due to his inability to reveal the affair to his stepfather. The screenplay written by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy did not reveal that Doinel’s father in the film played by Albert Remy was his stepfather until the midway point had passed. This reveal was similar to the revelations exhibited in the movies Manchester by the Sea (2016) and The Way Back (2020).
The music was also very whimsical for a 1950s flick compared to another movie I watched for the Seeing Films course titled The Seventh Seal (1957). Despite The Seventh Seal having a more adult-orientated plot it still incorporated a lot of humor in its storytelling but the music was mostly choir-like. In The 400 Blows, the music has a more upbeat and vibrant noise; a more celebratory tone. It could be that it is so to complement the antics of the main duo (Doinel and Bigey) when they are skipping school, having fun and committing petty crimes. The background score adds a further layer of realism to this coming-of-age story.
“Coming-of-age is a type of story in which a young person becomes an adult, or heads in that direction. There are many children’s stories (or stories about children) in which the child loses their innocence. When that character is a bit older (adolescent) then it’s called a coming-of-age story”.
Thus, The 400 Blows is definitely a coming-of-age story as Antoine Doinel can definitely be stated as an adolescent character as his age falls between 10 and 19 according to WHO.
If we were to cite any literary resemblance to The 400 Blow’s storyline then J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) is the first novel which immediately comes to mind. Although, the main similarity is both of the protagonists sharing a rebellious nature, their stories are also similar in the sense that both characters long to escape from institutions whether they be educational or not in nature.
Film reviewing website Rachel’s Reviews stated in their review of the 400 Blows that “In many ways Antoine reminds me of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, which was published in 1951. The 400 Blows came out in 1959. However, I prefer Antoine to Holden because his observations are mostly made through quiet staring at those around him where Holden’s dialogue becomes obnoxious.”
The above-mentioned paragraph mentions The Catcher in the Rye’s protagonist Holden as having unbearable dialogue, and that is the thematic difference which French New Wave pioneers such as Truffaut and Goddard wished to exhibit in their cinematic entries. The 400 Blows is extremely different from most well-known American coming-of-age stories as there is no constant narration and no flashbacks. The storytelling has a continuous flow. Each scene is crucial and will have some relation to the next sequence. The screenplay did not incorporate any excessive dialogue or an inner monologue from the characters.
The greatest testament to the afore-mentioned statement are two related sequences. Besides one I mentioned earlier on in the essay about Mrs. Doinel’s affair being the major cause of the kid’s trauma, the other two related sequences are: There is a scene where Doinel tells his best friend that they should quit school and start a boat business on the beach. When Doinel escapes the observation center towards the end of the film, he is on a beach near the water symbolizing freedom. Another scene which connects to this one and takes place after the friends’ conversation is when Doinel’s mother asks a judge if he could move Doinel to an observation center near the shore.
Perhaps the most shocking revelation in the film is the reveal that Doinel’s father in the film is actually his stepfather. This is conveyed all of a sudden but in two interconnected scenes. The first where Mrs. Doinel tries to get Antoine out of the observation center by stating to the judge that Mr. Doinel isn’t even Antoine’s biological parent. The second scene is when Antoine is interviewed by a psychiatrist and he breaks down about overhearing a conversation and learning that Mr. Doinel wasn’t his actual father after all. During the majority of the movie’s running time, Mr. Doinel is depicted as such a caring parent for Antoine that it never seemed to me that they were biologically unrelated. But if this were a traditional film from the US then the actual relationship between these two characters would have been revealed at the start of the film itself.
During adolescence, sexuality is at its developing stages; puberty. Similar to The Catcher in the Rye, prostitution and other forms of eroticism (pin-up posters) are prevailing concepts in the movie. This sub-theme was most probably included to synchronize with the protagonist’s point-of-view on sex during that age, but it becomes even more direct in two sequences. The first scene is prior to Antoine’s meeting with the psychiatrist when another kid mentions to Antoine to not look at the psychiatrist’s legs as it would merit him a negative point on his mental condition. There is a scene way before this one where Mr. Doinel lifts up one leg of his wife and tells Antoine that his mother has fine legs.
In conclusion, whether it be about rebellion or a lack of communication between a child and his parents or even puberty, The 400 Blows manages to encompass all aspects about adolescence in a film which runs for only 99 minutes. Even if the viewer is from a more reserved family background he or she can still relate to Antoine Doinel in one way or another when they were his age. And to be able to relate to the protagonist so fully is perhaps The 400 Blow’s greatest strength as a gem of not only French New Wave but of cinema as a whole.
Lynley. What Is A “Coming-of-age” Story. February 18, 2017. https://www.slaphappylarry.com/what-is-a-coming-of-age-story/.
Reviews, Rachel’s. Blind Spot 9: 400 Blows. September 13, 2016. https://rachelsreviews.net/2016/09/13/blind-spot-9-400-blows/.
Semlyen, Phil De, Ian Freer, and Ally Wybrew. Movie movements that defined cinema: the French New Wave. August 8, 2016. https://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/french-new-wave-movie-era/.
WHO. Adolescent health. May 31, 2020. https://www.who.int/southeastasia/health-topics/adolescent-health.
 Phil De Semlyen, Ian Freer, Ally Wybrew, “Movie movements that defined cinema: the French New Wave”, Empire Online, August 8, 2016, https://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/french-new-wave-movie-era/
 Lynley, “What Is A “Coming-of-age” Story?”, Slap Happy Larry, February 18, 2017, https://www.slaphappylarry.com/what-is-a-coming-of-age-story/
 WHO, “Adolescent health”, WHO, May 31, 2020, https://www.who.int/southeastasia/health-topics/adolescent-health
 Rachel’s Reviews, “Blind Spot 9: 400 Blows”, September 13, 2016, https://rachelsreviews.net/2016/09/13/blind-spot-9-400-blows/