Watching Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, I couldn’t help but feel at ease with subject matter that is undoubtedly disturbing.
For what is a film about a child pushed to delinquency by virtue of frivolous parenting, I always felt Antoine Doinel was safe. Safe despite being misunderstood and battling with what the world expects from him, for he is wise beyond his years with a street sense to rival most adults.
Much has been written about Truffaut’s motivations, or perhaps more pressingly his influences in creating this striking debut. As the ‘Grave Digger of French Cinema’, one can only presume this debut was met with much anticipation, piqued by his banning from Cannes a year prior in ’58.
Truffaut was a prolific writer, a critic, his ‘epistolary talents’ (John Conomos, 2000) not lost in the ether thanks to a mentoring Andre Bazin. Conomos goes on to suggest this base in writing is what leads Truffaut to Camera Stylo, a term coined by Alexander Astruc to describe the way a ‘filmmaker writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen’.
What is interesting to me is the angle in which Truffaut approaches his delinquent protagonist. I would hesitate to suggest that Truffaut really envisioned Doinel as such, for the humanity and subtleties he allows to take to the screen belie a child whose delinquency is only justified in the eyes of his contemporaries and elders, least of all in the audience.
As a viewer of The 400 Blows, I feel we are asked to reconsider the actions of youths. Perhaps, as it were, as a way for Truffaut to seek understanding from the audience for his own youth.
While we find ourselves in darkness, it is up to those around us to led us from this darkness.
Just as Bazin guarded Truffaut from enrolment, Doinel looks to us in the infamous freeze frame ending, eyes intensely searching, arms by his side, as if to say ‘what do I do now?’
After all, regardless of Antoine’s apparent maturity he is just a child. A child attempting to be a man (surely only a deep thinking, caring person would be capable of writing a letter of intent and farewell to their uncaring parents), but confused as to what is expected of him in order for this transition to take place.
It is clear then, that Truffaut uses Doinel as a vehicle to express his own beliefs of childhood, society, acceptance and fate. A trait that seems evident in what is soon to be termed the French New Wave.
We have Truffaut to thank for such a letter of intent and farewell to the studio based French cinema that followed the war. A true gift to behold if The 400 Blows is anything to go by.