In critic-turned-filmmaker François Truffaut’s debut film, a picture telling some version of his own life story, the young protagonist Antoine Doinel—played by fledgling actor Jean-Pierre Léaud—gets into dozens of scrapes of his own making. Having intuited, as children can, that his mother cares nothing for him, he tells a schoolteacher who’s hounding him that she has died, which is of course a lie. Antoine yearns only to break out and live life on his own terms, even though he’s only 12. With his closest friend, he skips school to go to the movies, hiding their telltale book bags, which would mark them as boys playing hooky, though you need only look at their faces to see the truth. Antoine runs away from home overnight, stealing a bottle of milk in the morning for sustenance. And while at home, he escapes the indifference of his mother and stepfather by lounging around with a book by his idol, Balzac, in one hand and a cigarette in the other—but later, after lighting a candle in honor of his favorite writer, he inadvertently sets a curtain on fire, angering his parents. Antoine Doinel can’t win.
The 400 Blows is boisterous, exuberant—until it isn’t. On Léaud’s face you see both stony, preternaturally adult defiance but also childlike vulnerability—because he, 14 at the time, was at the same crossroads as Antoine. Truffaut saw Léaud as a kindred spirit and encouraged him to improvise; the movie is a portrait of adolescence sketched out by a man who’d survived it and a youth who was still stumbling through it, and the effect is piercing. In 1959, before he’d made any films of his own, Truffaut’s Cahiers du Cinema colleague Jean-Luc Godard wrote, “Soon people will say Truffaut’s children as they say Bengal Lancers, spoil-sports, Mafia chiefs, road-hogs, or again in a word, cinema-addicts.” If you’re reading this, you’re most likely one of Truffaut’s children. Your telltale satchel, even if only metaphorical, gives you away.
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