Not every kid has had a childhood like Antoine Doinel’s, but every kid has felt like him. When you’re young, you often feel like the whole world’s against you. You’re at the age where you start forming some ideas and beliefs, only to find them questioned and challenged by a reality that you’re just beginning to comprehend.
“The 400 Blows” is a tough watch, not just because you’re watching a kid constantly getting beaten down, but because you see your own childhood reflected through his life. For many people, “Breathless” is a landmark film of the French New Wave, but for all that film’s technical brilliance, it doesn’t produce the same deeply felt emotions that “The 400 Blows” can create. Plus, it shows us the best/worst way to get an excused absence from class.
In fact, speaking of “Breathless,” it’s interesting to note just how reserved the directing style for this film is. There aren’t any crazy editing tricks, jump cuts, or moments of experimental filmmaking. In fact, the camera typically stays, obstinately, within Antoine’s perspective. The streets of Paris are seen from a child’s point of view, creating a world that’s confusing, mysterious, and kind of terrifying.
His interactions with the adult world suggest a pretty similar feeling. His teacher is cruel in that classic power-hungry disciplinarian kind of way (I’m sure many of us have had teachers like this). His primary method for discipline seems to be some form of public shaming. It makes sense, then, that Antoine can be so anti-social. If he’s constantly shamed in front of his peers, then he’d want to distance himself from them as much as possible. It’s why he talks about wanting to see the ocean. It represents an escape from the rest of the world.
There’s a scene where he goes to a carnival that illustrates this idea beautifully. Climbing into some low-rent version of a gravitron, with a myriad of onlookers gawking at him from above, this scene is a perfect representation of the kind of alienation that many adolescents feel. As the gravitron starts spinning, Antoine becomes more disconnected from the outside world, turning everyone else into a blur. Interestingly enough, we see Antoine laughing, as if he’s more comfortable being in his own, blurry world rather than connecting with anyone.
The film ends in one of the most fascinating shots in all of cinema. Antoine, having his childhood and his freedom taken from him, stands alone at the beach, unsure of where his life is headed. While there are sequels to this movie, the ending is still so indicative of the weird transitory period that our adolescent years are. For Antoine, the future doesn’t feel like some great adventure. Instead, it feels like a weird state of limbo leading to an ending that he’s not sure he wants.
At least he got to see the ocean.