Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Great Movies: The 400 Blows

At the Movies with Michael5000

The 400 Blows
Francois Truffaut (1959)

As a general rule, I resist European coming-of-age movies. There are just so damn many of them, and there's only so much you can do with fondly remembered uncles, harsh schoolteachers, the crass naiveté of adolescent sexuality, and the innocence of childhood interrupted by the harsh realities of war, poverty, or family disaster. Everybody idealizes the landscapes of their youth, and because filmmakers are no exception and moreover have the tools at their disposal to recreate those landscapes, the market in soft-focus nostalgia gets glutted pretty quickly.

I needn't have worried about The 400 Blows. Not only is it innocent of the coming-of-age clichés on a technicality -- it was made before the clichés became clichés -- but it is also bracingly free of sentimentality. There's no family dog in this boy's story; in fact, there's precious little family. He shares an apartment the size of a modest travel trailer with a mother who actively dislikes him and a stepfather who likes him well enough, but could really care less.

Plot: Autobiographical, and simple as can be. A bright young boy finds himself unsupported and in increasing trouble with the dominant social institutions. A series of incidents at school, motivated less by malice than by naiveté, nudge him into vagrancy, petty crime, a police record, and juvenile detention.

The presentation is not without humor and pathos, but it feels as much sociological as dramatic. The movie shows a keen understanding, or maybe a keen memory, of why children make the decisions they do. Even someone like me, who was an obnoxiously obedient child, can recognize the logic of Truffaut's juvenile downward spiral. There but for the grace of luck and a stable household, went I.

The power of the movie is in the details -- how the young protagonist interacts with peers and adults, how adults take advantage of children, how children take advantage of adults, how life in picturesque Paris might not be equally romantic for everyone.

Visuals: Shot in black and white, with a real command of the monochromatic scale. There's a minor scene in which our hero steals a bottle of milk after having been on the street all night; the white milk glows in the dark alley like treasure. (Freudian commentary on this scene, by the way, is not only unnecessary, it's shooting fish in a barrel.)

Dialogue: Always hard to tell with a movie 45 years old, not to mention in another language. The dialogue sometimes seems unrealistically expository -- would a mother really be so frank about not liking her son? -- but maybe people really talked that way. Hell, they probably still do. I'm kind of sheltered.

Prognosis: Recommended for anyone who likes movies. If you can handle black and white, subtitles, and subtlety -- and if you can't, why are you reading a movie review? -- you should enjoy this one.


Rebel said...

You know, with a title like '400 Blows' I was expecting something *completely* different.

Michael5000 said...

Apparently in French it's a idiom meaning "raising hell."

Neil said...

This is one of my favorites, the only Truffaut movie I really like. It is pretty much the standard for these type of coming of age movies, and done much better than most Hollywood imitators.