The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) | rel. 1959 | dir. François Truffaut
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing The 400 Blows, a wonderfully moving French film directed by famed New Wave director, Francois Truffaut. Truffaut wrote the script with heavy autobiographical touches to illutraste a portrait of his onerous childhood. But at the heart of The 400 Blows is a coming-of-age story of a troubled young boy, Antoine Doinel--Truffaut's alter ego. Antoine does poorly in school and his home life is marked by the unpleasant knowledge of his mother's infidelity. To escape a conflicted, unhappy life, Antoine is determined to live on his own--even if it turns him towards petty crimes.
On the surface, Antoine is a foolish troublemaker, but he is an extremely sympathetic character as well. Like many people his age, Antoine wants to get the hell out of his home, forget about school, and gain independence. But complete independence requires maturity, and that is something that Antoine doesn't quite grasp yet.
What makes Antoine work so fantastically as a three-dimensional character is Jean-Pierre Léaud's performance. I'm a sucker for child performances, and Léaud's portrayal of Antoine is probably in my top five child performances of all-time. Even in the duller moments of the film, Léaud never fails to mystify me. Léaud's playful boyishness and foolery is accompanied by a magnetic intensity develops the complexity of Antoine's character. Very few actors possess that kind of skill to hold the audience's interest as Léaud does throughout the film.
There is a scene near the end of The 400 Blows that puts Léaud's talents to the test: It is the psychologist scene at the observation school. The psychologist's face is never seen, only her voice is heard. In the audience's point of view, it seems like Antoine is confessing to the camera, a portal that leads directly to the audience. There is such intimacy in that scene, as Antoine spills his emotions and experience, it feels like Antoine is speaking directly to the audience.
The scene works because Léaud keeps the rhythm going at a certain pace that is appropriate to Antoine's character. Antoine answers the questions with crackling innocence and anxiousness that the context of the answers seem surprisingly nonsensical. The questions are calmly answered with honesty and completeness, but there is a lingering anticipation for the next question to be aimed his way.
Antoine just can't seem to wait for the next stage in life--wherever and whatever it might be.