Saturday, May 29, 2010

The 400 Blows (1959)

I am no expert on the French New Wave. In fact, The 400 Blows is possibly the first film of that movement (if you can call it that) that I have seen. Francois Truffaut is one of the most celebrated directors of his time and The 400 Blows is regarded as his best work by some. Hence, I looked forward to the film with great anticipation. I had the opportunity to watch in a small dark theatre as a part of the NLS Film Festival “When the Lights Went Out” being held at the Centre for Film and Drama at Miller’s Road this weekend. Here’s what I thought of the film:

There are films which look deceivingly simple and straightforward. Their premise is basic and their execution on the face of it seems fairly ordinary. However, beneath that first layer of simplicity, there are complex themes being portrayed. These films are easy to dismiss for the average viewer but for the more discerning ones there is so much to see and interpret that it provides that rare cinematic experience that absolutely unforgettable. The 400 Blows is one of those movies.

The premise is as follows: the film follows Antoine Doniel, a Parisian adolescent who is ignored by his family and is seen as a troublemaker in school. Feeling neglected and alienated, he slowly turns to a life of petty crime.

The film goes about the story in a quiet manner. We see Doniel’s doing his house chores while his parents out, his neglectful parents who fight without caring that he can hear them, his unfaithful mother who dislikes him, and his lacklustre father who sees him as a compulsive liar. These are conveyed through small tiny details which, at times are very easy to miss. While Truffaut chooses to infuse humour in certain places, he takes an equally harsh tone in others.

The film is shot beautifully. There are moments where the camera captures emotions in its lens to perfection. The pigeons flying away as the children cross the street; the long tracking shot of Doniel running in the end, the long take showing the kids jogging in a files across the Parisian streets; these sequences are not only well shot; they convey the emotions that Truffaut is trying to put across. Paris looks beautiful especially, the Eiffel Tower in the film’s opening credits and the panoramic view of the city on one of the adventures Doniel has with his friends.

(Warning:: Minor spoilers)

Above all, there are many points in the film that are open to interpretation. The story is semi-autobiographical, inspired by the life of Truffaut himself as a child and his friends. Yet, at the same time, the neglectful adults can be seen as a parable for the authority figures in children’s lives more generally. The story of this one boy can be seen as a reflection of the failures of that society and state. Going further, we can even ask, who is to blame and to what extent? That could be a source of endless debate. In these terms, my absolute favourite sequence was the in the final moments of the film as we see Doniel running towards the sea. It could be seen as a sign of his independence, but in those last frames before the end, you are not so sure. You could ask yourself, what is he running from? And more importantly, what is he running to? The 400 Blows is a wonderful film for a patient and discerning audience. Exquisitely shot and edited, it resonates emotionally and is more subtle than movies like The Bicycle Thieves and others. It allows you to get lost in those little details and discover new meanings; to interpret, and reconsider your interpretations many times over.

Although it is a little late in the day, I would recommend that you visit the NLS Film Fest which continues tomorrow as well. The entry is free and the discussion is fairly interesting. The schedule and details of the movies can be found on the following links:

Hope to see you there!


  1. Jaded that we have become to the various artifices of film, I see that the concluding freeze frame has not found a place in your review. But when it first came out that particular element of the film created 'waves' (pardon my pun). In fact, there are reams and reams that have been written about it. My personal favourite decription is the one which said that for the first time in history, cinema stared back at the audience.

  2. Oh, I did not know that. I had read little about the film before or after watching it at the time when this post was written. Thanks for telling!

    I just read some of the posts on your blog. I quite love the way you see films.