In summaries of the plot of The 400 Blows, Antoine, the young boy whose sorry life is chronicled over a period of a few months, is often referred to as “misunderstood.” Ignored and treated like a piece of wood is more like it. The adults around him, beginning with his sexy young mother who finds him irritating, his teachers, and adult officialdom generally, have no interest in him at all, his growth, his mind, his feelings, or his future. They just want to have him “taken care of” in some institutionally acceptable way.
In the only scene in which Antoine reflects on his life, speaking to an (unseen) psychologist at a delinquent ‘observation’ center to which he is sent after being picked up for stealing, Antoine reveals that he knows more about his situation than any adult. He knows he is an unwanted child, that his mother has affairs, that his parents regard him as a burden, and that the world, generally, sees him as a worthless scapegrace bound for jail or the military. The film presents his story with great economy, verve, and profound sympathy. Today, we know it was highly autobiographical of the young Francois Truffaut’s life, who burst onto the scene as a director with this film at the age of 27 in 1959.
I am not a fan of Truffaut, finding him sentimental and too sweet, but this film is stark: only the soundtrack mars the tone, adding a treacly and naïvely innocent contrast to the bleak tale of the ‘real world’ grinding young boys to dust between its wheels. As if we had to have that idea pounded into us that these are, after all, just very young boys. And speaking of pounding, the title, a literal but misleading translation of the French, refers to the idiomatic expression, faire les quatre-cent coups, which means “to raise hell.”
The only things that rouse Antoine’s genuine enthusiasm are films, and a book of Balzac that his grandmother gave him. (His mother regards it as rubbish, and sells it.) Pressed to find a topic for a homework assignment, he plagiarizes Balzac’s story, In Search of the Absolute, which he had been reading with rapt attention that evening. He even lights a candle to a miniature shrine to Balzac that he creates in his house. The candle sets the room on fire; his teacher gives him an ‘F’. The fact that this delinquent, under-achiever had actually read a Balzac story doesn’t interest him at all.