Truffaut's 400 Blows (and More) at Seattle Art Museum
It's impossible for me not to begin this short consideration of the French new-wave classic The 400 Blows with the film's final seconds (spoiler alert!). The boy, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) reaches the beach, the line between land and sea. The waves are in front of him; he has reached the limit. This is the zone where big decisions are made. For him, at this moment, it's either the nothingness of the endless sea or returning to the endless problems of his troubled childhood—he has been expelled from school, his mother is having an affair with her boss, his mother is also cold to him, his father is warmer but is a gambler and ineffectual, his friends also live in broken homes, and the state is trying to reform him, trying to make him the ideal subject for the capitalist mode of production. Will he go back to all that? Or will he run into the sea? He is only 12 years old. He doesn't know what to do. He drifts, he stops, he turns, and is frozen in time.
The greatness of The 400 Blows, and why it's François Truffaut's most successful film, is that it brought the enchanting powers of cinema down to the utterly mundane. The film feels and looks cinematic, but its story is not. An excellent example of a cinematic story is Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest: secret agents, murder at the UN, a mysterious woman, running from a crop duster. The story of an ordinary but unhappy Parisian boy (trouble with mom, trouble with dad, trouble with the school) is not the stuff of cinema. And then it is.