The 400 Blows

by Lisa Lieberman

The opening credits sequence of The 400 Blows (1959) takes us for a drive along the empty streets of Paris on a gray morning in early winter. Bare trees, a glimpse of the weak sun as we make our way toward the Eiffel Tower: a lonely feeling settles over us and never really leaves. This world, the world of François Truffaut's childhood, is not the chic 1950s Paris of sidewalk cafés, couples strolling along the Seine, and Edith Piaf regretting nothing.

Eleven-year-old Antoine Doinel is in school when the film begins. We see him singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. He may not be a model student, but he's no worse than any of the other boys. Nevertheless, an example must be set pour encourager les autres. Draconian punishment of a potential ringleader is a time-honored means of enforcing discipline among the troops. Antoine is sent to the corner, kept in during recess, assigned extra homework. Even so, the teacher's authority is subverted. Small insurrections break out in the classroom when his back is turned. Exasperated, he threatens reprisals. “Speak up, or your neighbor will get it.”

We begin to suspect that we are not in 1950s Paris. We are in Paris during the German occupation—the era when Truffaut was actually growing up. The somber mood, the furtive acts of rebellion and retaliation, as when some of the students, led by Antoine, destroy a pair of goggles belonging to the class snitch.

There are other clues. A scene that evokes the hunger, when wartime rationing was in effect. Antoine spends a night on the streets, afraid to go home after he's been caught in a lie. As dawn approaches, he steals a bottle of milk from a caddy he spots on the curb in front of a shop and drinks it ravenously. Later, Truffaut draws our attention to a notice about exterminating rats on the wall of the police station where Antoine is locked up after his stepfather turns him in for a petty theft. Equating Jews with vermin was de rigueur in Vichy propaganda, a standard feature of the newsreels shown before the movies that the future filmmaker sneaked into when he was supposed to be in school.

Truffaut's stepfather really did hand him over to the police. He was subsequently sent to a reform school on the outskirts of the city, the Paris Observation Center for Minors, a grim institution where corporal punishment was employed to keep the delinquents in line. Antoine is sent to an Observation Center in Normandy, near the coast. The routine is strict, militaristic. We see the young offenders marching two-by-two under the watchful gaze of the warden. No deviation passes unnoticed. Antoine is slapped for taking a bite of bread before he is given permission to eat, the blow delivered casually and without rancor. A simple transaction: one violation of the rules earns a slap.

More serious infractions, such as running away, earn a beating. A boy is returned to the institution, his face bruised and bloody, dragged past the other juveniles by his captors and locked in a cell. Truffaut suffered the same fate for attempting to escape and ended up spending several months in solitary confinement. He also underwent a series of psychological assessments. In the film, Antoine is warned by another boy not to let his guard down in his interview with the “spychologist.” Anything he does or says in her presence will be noted in his dossier, his source cautions, together with “what everyone thinks of you, including your neighbors.”

The Kids in the Cage

This scene, though not strictly autobiographical (in reality, the Center's psychologist became Truffaut's staunchest ally), is in keeping with the wartime undercurrents running throughout the picture. Harder to decipher is an incongruous detail the filmmaker inserted into an outdoor sequence at the reform school, where we see the warden locking his own small children in a cage, presumably for their own protection, as the young offenders pass close by for their daily exercise. Granted, the cage is a rather pretty structure, filigreed metal painted white, but the image echoes a key moment in the police station, when Antoine was taken out of the basement cell he shared with a male inmate to make way for some newly-arrested prostitutes.

Antoine in the cell The idea of an eleven-year-old boy being locked up with these immoral women was so unthinkable that he was removed to a cage the size of a phone booth for his protection. Film scholar Adam Lowenstein draws a connection between the image of the kids in the cage and the work of French director Georges Franju, whose horror films exerted a powerful influence on Truffaut. Franju liked to slip uncanny images into his work, “forcing a recognition with the disturbing historical events that haunt it.” The past, in Franju's cinematic vision, was not safely past; events such as the German occupation and postwar purges, the round-ups of French Jews and their deportation to the death camps, continued to inform the present in myriad ways, not all of them conscious. Indeed, Truffaut said in an interview that he intended the kids in the cage as a tribute to Franju.

The persistence of past trauma in present-day awareness was also a central preoccupation in the films of Truffaut's colleague and mentor Alain Resnais. His documentary, Night and Fog (1955), was released during the Algerian war (1954-62), when French soldiers were accused of “doing over there what the Germans had done over here,” as Albert Camus bluntly put it. The narrator's final words, scripted by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol, stand as commentary on France's dirty war in the colony.

We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to humanity's never-ending cry.

The bleakest moments of The 400 Blows seem freighted with political significance. Let us return to that notice on the wall of the police station about rat exterminations. The term used in the notice, deratissages, closely resembles the euphemism the French army employed when referring to their anti-terrorist raids on Algerian villages: rat hunts or ratissages. These operations entailed razing the village to the ground, rounding up suspected terrorists, and forcibly resettling the remaining inhabitants in barbed wire-enclosed camps. Some two million Algerians were expelled from their homes and interned under harsh conditions by French authorities, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths from starvation, disease, or exposure.

Evidence of such inhumane policies, on top of the Gestapo tactics decried by Camus—torture, hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians, summary executions—was impossible to ignore in the late 1950s, when Truffaut was making his film. No less troubling were the French government's efforts to suppress debate on the Algerian campaign at home. When the journalist and former Resistance leader Claude Bourdet published an editorial in 1957 critical of the war, he was arrested at his home in Paris, handcuffed and brought to the Fresnes Prison, strip-searched, and questioned for the better part of a day. Fresnes Prison was where the Gestapo had interrogated members of the Resistance; Bourdet himself had been tortured there in 1944 before being sent to a concentration camp, and he did not hesitate to draw a parallel between the two experiences. “When the doorbell rings at 6 a.m. and it's the milkman, you know you are in a democracy.”

Discipline and Punish

The curtailing of personal freedom in the interest of security and public order would become the focal point of Michel Foucault's investigations into the disciplinary mechanisms permeating modern society. Working as a cultural attaché in the French foreign mission in Hamburg, he may well have seen The 400 Blows when it came out. The picture made quite a splash at the 1959 Cannes film festival, earning Truffaut the award for Best Director and a nomination for the top prize, the Palme d'Or, and it was Foucault's job to promote French cultural productions. Movies also happened to be one of the few distractions Foucault permitted himself, beginning in his student days at the École Normale.

Imagine the as yet unknown scholar, putting aside his work on the manuscript of Madness and Civilization (1961) to take in Truffaut's picture. He would have appreciated the “spychologist” line; Foucault himself had been subjected to psychiatric evaluations after his first suicide attempt. The film's spontaneity, an affront to the mannered traditions of French cinema—a tradition Truffaut dismissed as “cinéma de papa”—would have appealed to the iconoclastic philosopher. And it's tempting to regard the image of the kids in the cage as the proverbial grain of sand, the nucleus of the book that many consider the pearl in Foucault's oeuvre, Discipline and Punish (1975).

Toward the end of Discipline and Punish, Foucault introduces a walk-on character, Béasse, a thirteen-year-old orphan brought before the authorities in 1840 for vagabondage. The judge viewed the boy as a delinquent because he had no home and no steady employment. Idleness was a punishable offense under nineteenth-century French jurisprudence. Béasse understood his situation differently, however:

I don't work for anybody. I've worked for myself for a long time now. I have my day station and my night station. In the day, for instance, I hand out leaflets free of charge to all the passers-by; I run after the stagecoaches when they arrive and carry luggage for the passengers; I turn cart-wheels on the avenue de Neuilly; at night there are the shows; I open coach doors, I sell pass-out tickets; I've plenty to do.

The Béasses of this world, Foucault lamented, could not withstand the disciplinary system of “civilization” and “order” and “legality” that defined freedom as a crime, and yet the boy's joyful exuberance could not be suppressed entirely.

Hearing his sentence of two years in a reformatory, Béasse ‘pulled an ugly face, then, recovering his good humor, remarked: “Two years, that's never more than twenty-four months. Let's be off then!”'

The 400 Blows is punctuated with moments of joyful exuberance, but the ending suggests that there is no evading the regimen of the Observation Center. Antoine escapes, and we follow him as he makes his way to the ocean. He runs along the beach, dashes into the surf, then turns back. Where can he go? The camera zooms in on Antoine's expression, the final shot a freeze frame of his face. That lost look will stay with us for a long time.