The graceful streets and splendid architecture of Paris give the city a façade of joy and contentment. However, not many people can look inside the lives of the people living there, only to see problems just like in any other city. In my opinion, The 400 Blows is a well made movie in all aspects. The moviemaking skills, as well as the literary and dramatic aspects of the film combine to make a very pleasurable viewing experience. It is effective because it shows an example of the life of a seemingly typical young French boy in the late 1950s. It does this by closely following the actions and feelings of the protagonist, Antoine Doinel, throughout the movie.
In terms of good usage of literary aspects of filmmaking, The 400 Blows is a perfect example. The plot, for instance, is complex; not only is there a conflict between Antoine and the authorities in his life, but there is also an ongoing conflict between his mother and father. Antoine is skipping school and keeping it from his parents, while his mother is cheating on his father, which also adds an element of secrecy to the plot. Eventually, these two problems collide when Antoine catches his mom kissing another man in the street: Antoine’s mother must be kinder to him in fear of him telling his father that she is unfaithful. Meanwhile, Antoine wants his mother to maintain his image of a good student for his father. These struggles for power and secrecy are important for building the plot, but also for building the characters. We can see from these events that Antoine has a good heart, but frequently rebels against authority because of the way his mother treats him. Also, we can see that Antoine’s mother does not care about the preservation of their family because she is unfaithful to her husband and she is always bitter at Antoine. Finally, the character of Antoine’s father is developed as tolerant and trusting: he didn’t believe that Antoine could be lying when he said he didn’t have his Michelin book. However, eventually Antoine’s father discovers how deeply Antoine broke his code of trust and in effect, practically disowns him.
The dramatic aspects of this film help develop the overall feel of the movie by adding visual details to keep the storyline moving not only in the plot, but also in the eyes of the viewer. In terms of costume and make-up, it is easy to see that Antoine’s mother is vain and cares mostly about her appearance. She is constantly fixing herself in front of the mirror and dresses very fashionably for the time, as shown in the scene when she is walking amidst the other mothers at the reform school, wearing dainty shoes and a careful hat and coat. She also looks very young to be a mother, especially compared to the other mothers in the movie. The actress Claire Maurier effectively portrays her frustration in trying to bring up a rebellious child while being dissatisfied with her life at home. Lighting is also a very intense technique used in the film as a dramatic aspect. When Antoine is riding in the jail cart, all but his face is immersed in dark, displaying his loneliness in the world. As his face turns, the viewer notices a tear gleaming on his cheek, enhanced by the contrast of light and dark. Jean-Pierre Léaud is an actor who shows the innocent and childlike side of Antoine, but also his separation from his family and the rest of society, and being wiser about the problems of life than other children his age who have not felt problems between people. Antoine’s father, it seems, is not aware that his son is lying to him. However, the actor Albert Rémy brings up hints about his knowledge that his wife is cheating on him, like his conversation with his wife that the audience does not see, but only hears from the other room with Antoine. It depicts his character as a man who tries to preserve his family at all costs, even tolerating an unfaithful wife. The poor father tries to make Antoine better, but finally gives up and sends him to a reform school. The superb make-up job, lighting and acting in The 400 Blows set it apart as a gem in terms of dramatic elements of filmmaking.
Cinematic elements are very important in making a movie, and the staff working on The 400 Blows seemed to know the secrets to making the most effective movie. In the introduction, the camera shots are long, focusing on the Eiffel Tower as the camera progressively nears the Parisian landmark. The distance starts out large and ends up right under the tower. This satisfies the introduction of the setting, for now we know that the story takes place in Paris, France. It is also a time when the main musical theme of the movie is introduced. The melody sounds nostalgic and lonely, a tribute to better days, like Antoine reminiscing about his past and dreaming about his future. Long camera shots are a reoccurring theme in the movie – they are evident especially in the end when Antoine is shown running away from the reform school, the scenery behind him changing gradually from forest to sea shore. At that moment, the movie is silent, except for Antoine’s heavy breathing. It is like a time in the end when the viewers can remember everything they learned about Antoine and sympathize with his fate. These cinematic elements provide a much more exciting viewing experience than would have otherwise been possible.
The 400 Blows, although being set in a different hemisphere, has many similarities with Richard Wright’s Black Boy. First of all, both Richard and Antoine are children with good hearts who do many bad things. Richard burned down his house, and Antoine almost succeeded in doing the same, thanks to his Balzac shrine. Both boys’ parents have marital problems: in Richard’s case, his dad left his mom, while in Antoine’s case, his mom was cheating on his dad. Both boys are rebelling against the authority figures around them: Richard against his grandma and Antoine against his parents. However, there remains a difference between the two boys: there is no racial prejudice against Antoine, while it is the main conflict in Richard’s life. In this way, the boys stand far apart, even though they are similar in so many other ways.
I would recommend this movie to anyone who would want to expand themselves culturally. It is tastefully made, utilizing literary, dramatic, and cinematic elements of filmmaking, creating the optimal film viewing experience. Aside from the language barrier, the movie’s ideas are effectively carried straight from France into our American lives, and all of us can identify with the movie’s characters and their internal struggles. The plot efficiently relates the main events of Antoine’s life in a way that makes it interesting for the viewers to watch. Along with this, elements of French life are also presented in the movie, allowing the viewer to see what life was like in France in the 1950’s. A lot can be learned about French culture by watching this movie. Overall, I enjoyed this film and believe that many people can find something to love in this masterpiece of filmmaking.