The 400 Blows, one of the initiating sparks of the French New Wave, ultimately boils down to the film’s trendsetting coda, perhaps the most exclamatory question mark in movies. (Only Kiss Me Deadly, which similarly ends in the surf, and L’Eclisse come to mind as potential rivals.) A mischievous but misunderstood adolescent boy, having run for about three or four languorous minutes of screen time (that is, after spending about 95 minutes innocently getting on his parents’ and teachers’ bad sides), reaches a beach and dips his foot into the waves of low tide. He halts, looks around, about-faces, and momentarily looks into the camera. Freeze. Zoom. Fin.
Implying nothing in particular even as it cuts young Antoine Doniel’s options until motion is no longer available, the lack of finality in former Cahiers du Cinéma critic François Truffaut’s “Fin” is a perception-altering moment, one that suggests the cinephiliac relationship Truffaut and his ilk (meaning you too; meaning anyone born into a life of cinema) all share with movies, the thrilling sensation that it isn’t just life experience that informs movies, but, inversely, that movies themselves give birth to life experience. Antoine’s freewheeling, vivacious spiral into a rather pathetic sort of juvenile delinquency is undoubtedly Truffaut’s life filtered back into the nourishing medium of movies. But what emerges isn’t a painful, isolated experience, but a life refined by its pop potential.
When compared to Jean-Luc Godard’s concurrent, equally trailblazing Breathless (which Truffaut co-authored), 400 Blows is aesthetically precious. If you watch either today, looking for the details that ostensibly ignited cinematic revolution, Truffaut’s rough-hewn but decidedly soft-hearted sentimentality have nothing on Godard’s jump cuts and pugnacious allusions. In contrast to Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg’s pseudo-egghead pillow talk, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud, in an immensely likable performance) can’t even differentiate between tribute and plagiarism. Godard’s characters bleed indifferently. Truffaut instructs his cinematographer to linger over the enraptured faces of cherubs taking in a Punch and Judy show. Such are Truffaut’s seemingly counterintuitive attitudes that he even attributed the film’s most memorable stylistic coup—“Fin”—to the fact that the camera simply ran out of film.
So why does 400 Blows vibrate like it straddles the cinematic generation gap? Moreover, how does a critic who was apparently so vicious that he was banned from attending Cannes 1958 turn out a film so loveable that he won a Best Director citation at the festival the following year? Look no further than the concept of “the movies.” When the Doniel family seems at the cusp of detonating, they catch a war flick and are, for a stolen moment, magically convivial. Their experience has been briefly enhanced by movies. When Antoine gets carted away to the big house in a paddy wagon, the glittering lights of nighttime Paris and Jean Constantin’s xylophone-heavy music transform what is otherwise a rock-bottom moment into a transcendent cinematic interlude, a sequence ripe with photogenic pathos. Truffaut’s internal battle between nostalgia and anarchy is compelling (and probably reaches an early climax with Antoine’s POV ride in a carnival centrifuge), but the vitality of 400 Blows, what keeps it potent long after many of its New Wave antecedents have come to appear stale and dated, comes from the symbiosis between real and reel life.