Isolation, Rejection, and Poetry in the 400 Blows

The 400 Blows (Les Quatre-Cent Coups) is the seminal film of the French New Wave. A harsh critic of formulaic films for Cahiers du Cinema, Francois Truffaut, the film’s director, advocated that film be treated like an artistic creation of an auteur rather than a technical production. His own work meets the high artistic expectations put forth by his criticism. With its poetically moving depiction of a difficult childhood, the movie transformed the medium of cinema into an art form. Starkly honest in conveying the period of troubled adolescence, it avoids trite sentimentalism but achieves a poignant realism that profoundly resonates with the audience. The film explores the alienation and entrapment experienced by Antoine Doinel (portrayed by Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Leaud, a child who suffers undeserved cruelty from parents, teachers, and society in general. Truffaut uses the technique of the moving camera to show the pain of Antoine’s isolation and estrangement. (Note: The moving camera is a director's method of having a movie filmed by the constant motion of the camera from one scene to another. This is opposed to the opposite method of having the camera cut from one scene to another, which is static... This second method is called montage.)

The moving camera accentuates the feeling of isolation and entrapment felt by Antoine Doinel in school. When the children pass a magazine with a picture of a sexually provocative woman on the cover to each other, the students are cautious to make sure that the teacher does not notice it. When the teacher catches Antoine with the magazine and sends him to stand in the corner behind the board, the camera emphasizes his loneliness. It does this by tracking him during the walk to the board, so that he is the focus of the frame. This separates him from the rest of the class and hints that he is being excluded. Furthermore, the when he disappears behind the blackboard, the camera doesn’t follow there but loses sight of him and returns to showing what’s going on the classroom. His exclusion from the general scene of class interaction once again establishes him as an outcast. The same effect is achieved during recess-time. The camera, abandoning Antoine who is forbidden to go outside with the rest of the boys, pans across the courtyard outside to capture the boys playing. The freedom represented by the merry clamor of play is contrasted with Antoine’s isolation inside the classroom.

Similar to his situation in school, at home Antoine is also subjugated to oppression at home. We see this because he is repeatedly interrupted from activity and excluded from the presence of the parents as much as he was from the classroom by his teacher. When his mother comes in and sees him doing his homework, she sends him out of the living room to fetch her slippers. After he does that, she still doesn’t allow him to sit down in the living room and be in her presence. Instead, she sends him out to buy flour at the convenience store. After dinner, he is likewise forced to be alone and away from the company of his parents. He is banished to his bedroom, with the camera showing his mother shutting the door on him. The fact that the camera chooses not to cut to him entering room, but to remain in the room which he has been forced to leave, emphasizes that he is being excluded.

When a child is alone in his room and away from the parents he fights with, his feeling of being excluded might lessen because the parents that have made him feel unwelcome are no longer to seen... One might figure then that the discomfort they evoke might also be relieved. However, the viewer would be wrong to assume that Antoine finally finds such solace from being mistreated within his private space. However, his mother does not permit him this innocent place of solace because she opens his door again to send him to take out the garbage.

Antoine's mother constantly uses Antoine for chores while not doing anything warm that would show her love towards him. The camera imbues defines Antoine's act of taking out the garbage with the feeling of being banished by his mother. It tracks Antoine walking down the dreadfully dark staircase using a medium close-up.

The transition from the spacious, well-lit atmosphere of the house to the claustrophobic darkness of his descending the stairs symbolically represents Antoine's predicament of is being turned away from a comforting zone of a doting mother into a realm where he is excluded from her loving care.

This alienation from her love is expressed in terms of both light and space. The narrowness of the staircase gives an impression of solitude and lack of a connection with his mother.

The camera conveys the solitude of the stairway scene much in the same way as it did in the scene where Antoine was shown to be inside and alone in the classroom. The camera starts that school scene by focusing on Antoine who is being punished for reading the pornographic magazine. But while he is detained in the classrom, the camera pans over to the children playing outside. The movement of the camera thus emphasizes the social space of children playing together that Antoine is excluded from. In doing so, it highlights his feeling of being excluded from his playmates.

After this digression, I now return to showing how the staircase also expresses Antoine's feeling of being excluded from his family. The rather long scene in which Antoine is shown to be walking down a narrow staircase stands in contrast to the very short scene of him eating dinner with his parents. The camera creates spatial contrast between the short dinner table scene that involves Antoine in interaction with parents and a the long scene of him walking down the dark narrow stairway outside the apartment that excludes him from this type of interaction. Thus metaphorically the moving camera seems to show that Antoine is more often rejected then welcomed by his parents.

But both parents don't reject Antoine equally. The mother really does more so than the father. The camera’s treatment of Antoine’s relations with his mother highlights their emotional distance. Take for example the scene when the mother comes into the house from work in the beginning of the film and questions Antoine about his day at school. The camera pans back and forth between the two, who are situated in different rooms; her in the living room and him in the kitchen. The fact that the camera separates them rather than choosing to show them together shows that they are having trouble communicating with each other.

Also during dinner, the camera similarly disconnects mother and child. While it captures both father and son in the same shot, it never does this for mother and child. Appropriately, when the mother finishes placing the food on the table and sits next to the father, Antoine has already left the table. The fact that Antoine’s eyes don’t directly look at his mother while talking to her also confirms their lack of a connection.

Furthermore, the camera emphasizes the distance between and Antoine and his parents while he lies in bed. The medium close-up of him in his bed listening to his parents’ bickering in another room shows his powerlessness by limiting the scope of space which surrounds him in the frame and by disconnecting him from the parents who are in another room.

This spatial alienation emphasizes the emotional alienation a child may develop when he finds out that he is powerless to change his parents' deteriorating relationship. Thehelplessness that the camera accentuates comes from Antoine having to passively listen to his parents’ fighting while at the same time being unable to do anything to stop it.

Perhaps, the parents' marriage problems complicate their relationship with Antoine; his mother may simply be taking out her frustration with the father by mistreating the child. We know from the movie's other scenes that the mother is having an affair. Antoine spots her in the company of another man one day. This is, no coincidence, the same day that the father has told him that she could not make supper for the two of them because she had to stay late at work.

Antoine's feelings of being excluded at both home and school are also shown by the moving camera when Antoine goes for a ride in an amusement park that he and has friend have sneaked off to during school hours. The ride is a type of a donut-shaped merry-go-round with a ring-shaped top and a hollow bottom.

Antoine is one of the very few people who chooses to be at the bottom of the merry-go-round which spins like crazy. In fact, it moves so fast that during the ride he is glued to the surface. Antoine's face looks scared; he is barely able to move and hardly able to withstand the pressure of the velocity.

His position on the ride functions well as a symbol of his isolation. He has left behind the safety and comfort of the crowd and exchanged it for a position where he is surrounded by less people and thus is more alone. The symbol of increasing solitude and separation from the crowd is accompanied by a symbol of increasing threat. Antoine is glued to the surface and unable to move because the bottom of the merry go round has dangerous velocity that he cannot protect himself against. There are no supports he can hold on to so that the speed of the ride doesn't shake him about as much.

The symbols of separation from others, increasing danger, and lack of support shown by the ride convey the life situation Antoine experiences in the plot of the film. He is separated from others both at home and at school; and the result of this rejection is a the menacing danger of being alone, unwanted, uncared for...

The idea of the separation, rejection becomes even more relevant in the later stage of the film where Antoine's parents send him to a home for young delinquents. The parents are alarmed by reports of acting out a school and a complaint that Antoine and friends have stolen food from a store. Thus, they decide that Antoine's unruly ways can only be changed by confinement and harsh discipline of a penitentiary.

The images however don't only tell a story of despair. Occasionally, Antoine experiences his exclusion as liberating. In one such scene, the camera tracks Antoine escaping excitedly towards the sea. This time it captures him in a long shot, showing the wide expanse of nature.

The scene of the sea and the beach emphasizes spaciousness. Antoine is blended into the landscape instead of being separated from in two cases before. In those two scenes, the landscape of his parents house and the children's recess-time schoolyard eluded him; instead he was imprisoned in a narrow space of exclusion - on the narrow stairway and the empty schoolroom respectively.

Here the way he blends in with the larger landscape instead being separated from it perhaps comes to symbolically mean the end of his being rejected. And fittingly so. The end of symbolic confinement shown by this scene is mirrored by the end of real confinement. Antoine is about to escape from the home for young delinquents and experience freedom for the first time.

By emphasizing emptiness and isolation in various symbolic ways, Truffaut uses the moving camera to create visual poetry. Truffat's moving camera communicates subtle emotions and symbolic meanings much like words do inside a poem. The 400 blows, being one of the first movies of the French New Wave, shows how that movement was crucial into transforming film into artistic medium that would render its works as timeless as poetry.

Background information: This film was released in 1959 and France and went on to win the best director award at the Cannes film festival. It was also nominated for the Oscar in the category of "Best screenplay written for the screen" The director Francois Truffaut went on to direct several films that continued to tell the story of Antoine Doinel's life including Bed and Board, Love on the Run, and The Man Who Loved Women. Some of his other famous films are Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player, The Bride Wore Black and The Last Metro

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