Les quatre cents coups (François Truffaut, 1959)

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Les quatre cents coups, directed by François Truffaut (1959, a.k.a. The four hundred blows).

Score: excellent.

Antoine Doinel (Jean Pierre Léaud) is a Parisian schoolboy in the mid-Twentieth century who just can’t find motivation. His mother (Claire Maurier) despises and neglects him and his father (Albert Rémy) is not much better. At school, his teacher (Guy Decomble) is unsupportive and unsympathetic and they follow a syllabus that does little to retain the interest of children. Antoine tries hard to please the adults in his life but nothing works so he ends up turning to playing truant and petty crime.

Les quatre cents coups (meaning “to raise hell” or “to live a wild life” in French) is a mostly autobiographical movie and one I can easily relate to given that my father tells very similar stories of his schooldays memories. The values dissonance is huge for a contemporary viewer: the school scenes show physical punishment, memorizing pointless information, a total disregard for student motivation and a lack of sympathy and the most basic psychology on the part of the teacher. My friend and I wondered whether Truffaut was truly outraged by his schooldays experiences in a similar way we were while watching his movie or if he just wrote what he knew. I guess it’s hard to tell: people tend to justify the way things were done when they were young even if deep down they know there was room for improvement.

Antoine’s parents have more in common with some contemporary parents: they look like they didn’t want kids in the first place and they clearly don’t have the patience or interest to raise him. They argue about him in front of him, scorn him. They don’t encourage him or even give him time to do his homework. He enjoys reading Balzac, a difficult author, but nobody seems to care that he does or encourages it. His mother’s idea of motivation is promising him a thousand francs if he gets top marks, but showing him affection is unthinkable. When Antoine gets arrested, his parents even expect law enforcement to bring up their son on their behalf.

The underlying theme of the film is failure of education, for the reasons pointed out above. Truffaut’s approach is subtle: he constructs the narrative from scenes in the life of Antoine, showing him at his best and his worst, but not pushing his point of view. That may be why some people are left scratching their heads at the movie. This is what I read on it but it’s open to other readings, naturally. Léaud’s acting works very well in this direction: paroxysms and annoying cuteness and mischief are largely avoided.

To wrap it up, worth your time.

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