The 400 Blows: Youth and Rebellion

If a major revolution in modern literature began in 1951 with The Catcher in the Rye, the decade was bookended with François Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows, featuring an adolescent protagonist every bit as indelible as Holden Caulfield. Leaud portrays Antoine Doinel, an alienated teenager who joylessly pulls pranks in his classroom, lies to his teachers and steals from his parents. Truffaut said he made the movie because “I had suffered because I was an only child and I felt I was still close to the world of children.”

The 400 Blows’ constant tone of paranoia is set during the opening credits, as the camera pans through the crushingly narrow streets of Paris where the Eiffel Tower remains a looming, unavoidable presence. Likewise, Antoine cannot escape the presence of his demonic schoolteachers or the sound of his mother and father arguing in their cramped, thin-walled one-bedroom walk-up apartment. Truffaut would later confess, “I think The 400 Blows is a very cruel film toward adults.” Critic Danny Peary wrote, “Adults make feeble attempts to find out the source of (Antoine’s) problems – probably because deep down they realize they are responsible. In Truffaut’s world there is a generation gap and it’s the children who are victimized by it.”

If the movie’s ostensible subject is youth delinquency, The 400 Blows never feels like a pat TV movie of the week. A session with a shrink (unseen, but voiced by Jeanne Moreau) at a youth observation center, in fact, has the feel of cinema-verite. “When Jean-Pierre Léaud talked to the police psychiatrist,” Truffaut said in 1967, “I let him tell his own anecdote.”

The 400 Blows‘ memorable final shot shows Antoine escaping into an environment 180 degrees removed from the claustrophobic opening — released at the end of the 1950s, Truffaut’s landmark film anticipates the awesome promise and scariness of the decade to come.

By Andrew Milner

The 400 Blows screening this Monday
September 5, 7:30 pm
AxD Gallery / 265 South 10th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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