The French New Wave (Le Nouvelle Vague) is an artistic movement that “made its first splashes as a movement shot through with youthful exuberance and a brisk reinvigoration of the filmmaking process.” (Phillips, 2005). It emerged during the 1950s and was at its peak between 1958 and 1964. Furthermore, this movement is based on two guiding principles of Cahier critics at that time: (1) a rejection of classical montage-style filmmaking in favor of mise-en-scene, or literally, “placing in the scene” (favoring the reality of what is filmed over manipulation via editing) and (2) a conviction that the best films are a personal artistic expression and should bear a stamp of personal authorship.
Moreover, it was in 1959 that the French new wave really ‘broke’. Truffaut’s first feature, “The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups)”, was one of the featured films during that year. It was considered as a semi-autobiographical film, which means that this film was inspired by Truffaut’s troubled childhood. In fact, this filmmaker considers his first feature as his most personal film, and he even identified Antoine Doinel, the lead character in his films, as his alter-ego. Just like Antoine, Truffaut too had an adoptive father and a mother who resented having a child. Moreover, it is evident that this film is considered as a New Wave film, since it exhibits one of the guiding principles of the movement, which was the personal authorship of the film. Thus, The 400 Blows is one of the most important films of the French New Wave, as it is considered to be one of the earliest and most successful New Wave films.
“The 400 Blows” tells about a story of a young teenager boy named Antoine Doinel who is going through a difficult childhood as he struggles with the hardships of life. He lives with his mother who really did not want him to be born in the first place, and with his stepfather who does not understand him and even brought him to the police for stealing a typewriter. Moreover, he also deals with difficulties at school as he always get scolded and punished by his teacher for reasons that at times are really his friends' fault. He also struggles with studying as he is not enjoying it and would prefer working rather than going to school. As a consequence of always getting into trouble or causing the trouble, he is finally sent to a juvenile camp or center. Nevertheless, at the end of the story, he gets to see what he has been long dreaming about- the ocean or the sea.
Going to the themes of “The 400 Blows”, there's friendship, family, education and childhood that can be found in this film. Furthermore, the central themes that are to be found in this film are escapism, mischief, discipline, injustice and disobedience or noncompliance. Escapism is a central theme in this film because aside from the apparent and final escape of Antoine from the juvenile center, he would previously escape from his parents every time he gets into trouble by staying at another place, such as his friend Rene's house. He would also escape school by not going to class and watch a movie or go to an amusement park instead. Mischief is also a dominant theme because the lead character himself, which is Antoine, is always a mischief. He steals things such as a bottle of milk, his stepfather's Michelin Guide and a typewriter. He would also fool his teacher by writing a forged excuse note for not being able to go to school and also his parents by asking them a certain amount of money that is more than what he really needed. In addition, discipline is also a central theme in the film as one can see that Antoine is punished in different ways for many times by his parents and his teacher as he always misbehaves. There is also injustice as a central theme of the film as Antoine experiences maltreatment from his parents and his teacher. He is not rightly treated by his parents since they would let him only sleep in a sleeping bag. On the other hand, his teacher accused him right away of a crime such as the pin-up incident without even knowing what really happened. Finally, disobedience or noncompliance is a central theme in this film as Antoine disobeys his parents and his teacher and would not strictly follow his school's rules.
Now looking at the political aspect of the film with its given themes, “The 400 Blows” mainly depicts the portrayal of power and coercion through institutions in the society. First of all, who should discipline Antoine for misbehaving? It can be seen in the film that every time Antoine is in trouble at school, the school would always call his parents. There was this instance that the teacher even said something about parents being responsible for their children. On the other hand, Antoine's parents are considering sending Antoine to a military school as they know that he would be disciplined in there. This could mean that in the film, there is a confusion of roles and responsibilities between the two of the most prominent institutions in the society- the family and the school. Moreover, at the end of the film, Antoine is sent to the center for juvenile delinquents, which means that he is now under the institution of law.
Another question is who should be really blamed for Antoine's deviant behavior? One can see that in the film, Antoine's mother does not really take care of his son while Antoine's teacher at school is very strict, harsh, and unfair to his students. So is it Antoine's family, or Antoine's school that should be blamed? Supposedly, it is the institutions in the society that establishes the rules and norms that shape the behavior of the people. However, in the case shown in this film, it seems that it is the institutions themselves that determine or shape Antoine's behavior. If I'm not mistaken, it was pointed out in the class discussion that Antoine's deviant behavior represents disorder, or a challenge to the society's order. If this is really so, then this means that in the film, the order in the society that the institutions have established is threatened by the institutions themselves.
Nevertheless, these institutions are the ones that are powerful in the society, as portrayed by the film. An example of this is Antoine’s teacher. We see that he has authority, thus power, over his students as he forces them to follow his rules and punish them if they disobey him. Hence, based on the ‘carrot and stick’ approach, the teacher uses ‘stick’ to his students to get to obey him or in other words, to manipulate their behavior. On the other hand, Antoine’s parents, given that they are authoritative figures since Antoine should follow them, are using the ‘carrot’ so just Antoine would behave. In other words, they reward, or even bribe him, just so that he would conform to what his parents want.
As the portrayal of power is very evident in the film through the role of the institutions, coercion is very evident in here as well. These powerful institutions use coercion to control the actions of Antoine. This means that they use threats and punishments in order for Antoine to follow the rules. For example, Antoine’s parents threaten him that if he does not do well in school or does not behave well, they would be sending him to military school. The same way also goes for Antoine’s teacher. He threatens Antoine that he would call his parents if he does not behave in school. Moreover, one who coerces another person has power over that person because he or she is able to influence the behavior of that person with the use of threats and punishments.
In conclusion, I think that “The 400 Blows” not only tells us what a difficult childhood could be like, but as to who could be and should be responsible for the welfare of a child. Furthermore, I think that this is where the public and private sphere goes in as well. Should the government (the public) be the one to discipline a person who does not conform to the society or, should that person’s family (the private) be the one to discipline their family member? And my one last question for this film would be, ‘Which is better so that one would follow the rules: to punish, or to reward?’
“There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors.” Thus wrote François Truffaut in one of his essays in the year 1954, pertaining to the French-originated film theory called La politique des auteurs, or more commonly known as the auteur theory. A brainchild of prominent critics of Cahiers du Cinema, it claims that the film medium acts as a blank canvass for the artist that is the filmmaker. Every film has a distinct signature that makes it different from the rest of what was produced, thus the director would be regarded as an auteur or author of his work. Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and Rohmer, to name a few were staunch advocates of this approach, and even especially applied it to the films which they themselves would later on produce.
Now the La Nouvelle Vague, or the cinematic movement known as the French New Wave, could be said to be an application of this particular theory to practice by the writers of Cahiers. Noted in the decades of the 50s and 60s, this movement was “linked by their self-conscious rejection of classical cinematic form and their spirit of youthful iconoclasm”. The movement broke free from the constraints of the literary and narrative form of the classic French cinema (which was regarded as “high” or untouchable art), and became more engrossed in the social and political debacle that came during that time. Thus, works like Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour and Godard’s A bout de soufflé, not only had idiosyncratic themes and stylistic elements, but also became a commentary on social reality.
Following the same paradigm, French auteur François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cent coups) is a lustrous example of the characteristics of such movement. Created in the year 1959, this French New Wave classic shows the struggle not just of protagonist with his identity as an impoverished youth, but also the struggle with authority, institutions and social constructs. The film follows the unfortunate life of a typical Parisian adolescent named Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as he faces one trouble after another. Be it in school with difficult teachers, at home with parents who constantly argue, or at a detention center for juvenile delinquents, Antoine faces the unintended consequences that a boy of his disposition entails. He is singled out for his mischievous ways, no matter how he tries to escape from reality. The movie ends with the protagonist breaking free from the constraints of the detention center and running towards the sea and a future of uncertainty.
One of the main objectives of Truffaut in coming up with this particular film is “to portray a child as honestly as possible…” (Writing About Film, 1982). This perhaps is the point of view of the movie. It looks at the realities of the world through the lenses of a 12-year old boy, undergoing both internal and external conflict.
It must be noted first and foremost that Anotoine, being an adolescent, at the time when he is not considered a child, but at the same time he isn’t exactly an adult. He is in an awkward phase where he is still trying to figure out who he is and what his purpose is in life. Thus, it is inevitable that without proper guidance, he could easily swayed into doing reckless actions—such as skipping classes, ganging up on the teacher, and rebelling against his parents. However, one must note that this is merely at the identity level; and that there are still other external forces that mold the boy into his identity. Social institutions such as the school and family (as seen in the film) could account for who he is and who he might become. And as one might notice, the very institutions that he socializes in are fractured: for instance, at school, he is punished for doing petty slipups by his strict teacher; whereas at home, he is ignored by his mother and father. His exposure to theft, illegal business, and detention disillusions him in such a way that it corrupts his childlike innocence. This is materialized in the scene where Antoine was taken by the police and placed at the back of the car, as the camera zooms to his stoic face and subtly shows a tear running down his cheek. One would see that Antoine is helpless with his condition, because he becomes directly involved with all these internal and external elements.
The film is quiet, but powerful; as it does not force the audience to perceive the film in a certain way; rather it lets the simple unfolding of the plot tell the story as it is. Truffaut, in his first full-length feature, was successful in showing the struggle that Antoine has experienced as boy coming of age and living in a Paris that is totally different from what one might expect. The camera simply follows the boy, without judgment, without preconceived notions whatsoever. In fact, it also seems as though the viewers are part of the movie since there are certain camera shots wherein the characters themselves look straight at the camera. Though one might argue that The 400 Blows can be further appreciated given the fact that it is based on the childhood of the filmmaker himself (creating “authorship”, literally), it also makes sense to see only what’s on the screen. In this sense, the viewers are empowered to dig their own layers of meanings based purely on the film.
Also, the technical aspect of the film also puts itself in the shoes of the young Anotoine. There are instances wherein the camera uses high angle shots to frame the setting, such as in the first scene of the film: The viewers see Paris in such a way that it seems towering and intimidating as exhibited by the worm’s eye view of the camera. This perspective is what most youth view the world---innocent, even to the point of being scary. In addition, the film elements play up on the interplay between the innocence of youth and the corruption of adulthood. For example, it was in one memorable scene with the children watching a play that we see their simple joys and content, as opposed to the adults who need to be secured of wealth, beauty, or power to feel satisfied with their lives, as exhibited for instance by Antoine’s mother or the father of René, Antoine’s best friend. This brings viewers to questions the authority of adults: just because they are older and wiser, does it necessarily mean they know better? After all, these are the ones who was responsible for a World War a decade or two from when the film, and therefore the setting, was established. It seems that Antoine learned the answer the hard way—that the adults do not necessarily have all the right answers. Thus, through the long shot when he was running at the near end of the movie, there is a sense of wanting to escape from the clutches of the system inhibited by adults, into a world of his own idealization. The movie ends with a famous freeze frame of the protagonist, with his uneasy eyes staring at the viewers, forcing us to look back at all he had been through and reflect on the uncertainties that lie ahead.
Overall, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is a cinematic experience about the youth, one that enriches viewers with French culture and at the same time empowers the viewers to think deeply about the thought-provoking premise of the story. If it truly is “raising hell”, as what the English translation claims it to be, then can one expect a hell simply because of Antoine Doinel’s own misgivings, or is it because it was shaped by some other hell in its context? This is something to ponder on to truly appreciate the film.
The French New Wave. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_New_Wave
Auteur Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from Australian Catholic University: http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/staffhome/siryan/Screen/Auteur%20Theory.htm
The 400 Blows (n.d.). Retrieved from the Internet Movie Databse: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053198/
Feuring, D. (2009). Responsibility of the Auteur: Vulnerability of the Troubled Filmmaker. Retrieved from Suite 101: http://european-films.suite101.com/article.cfm/french_new_wave_film_review_the_400_blows