Directed by: François Truffaut
Written by: François Truffaut & Marcel Moussy
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier
Nature vs. nurture tries to understand someone’s development from what they receive from their genetics and from their environment. People cannot control what they receive from nature, as it all comes predetermined based on their birth parents. The 400 Blows focuses on the nurture aspects and how the systems set up around a particular child fail him and lead him down the path they want him to avoid.
Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) tries his best but ultimately remains misunderstood by his parents and the other adults in his life. His parents only see the negative things he does and it only gets worse in school where his teachers have no faith in him. Instead of giving any aid to the young lad, the adults around him make decisions that lead him further from the ideal they constructed for him. It leads Antoine down a path of self-discovery and self-reflection as to where he fits into this unjust world.
The title of the film can have different interpretations but the one that easily jumped out to me comes from the “blows” society lands on the young boy. Through much of his schooling he would not be classified as a model student. He has his disruptive tendencies and has engaged in dishonest writing. At home, he would lie to avoid getting caught for the things he would do. Sure, these actions do not represent good behavior, but this kid still has much to develop and learn. Instead of giving him the opportunities to grow and learn from his mistakes, he receives reprimands that end up with him being taken in by the police. This kid has much to take in, and the systems around him failed him at each turn.
The 400 Blows is considered one of the most influential films in history and a major part of the French New Wave, as it serves as the directorial debut of François Truffaut. It has many of the attributes that this new style of filmmaking became known for, including its radical style of editing and the type of story it had the willingness to tell. It seeks to critique the systems put in place to correct the behavior of children. Instead of creating a culture of support the punitive nature of the adults lead Antoine further and further away from building a connection with society. It prompts him to run away and by the end, it leaves a major cathartic moment where he receives some time to reflect.
Even with it being made in 1959, The 400 Blows has a freshness to it that makes it an essential film in the canon of cinema. The story feels like it could be pulled from 2020, as children of this century face some of the same issues. Thinking as an educator and using the restorative practices of my day job, it makes me ponder how Antoine’s fate would change if he had the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and possibly change for the better through a more restorative and inclusive approach. The methods utilized in the film obviously do not have the desired effect, and I’m glad Antoine gets a moment in the film to let out his frustrations to the people around him. A moment that comes at the point where he becomes unsure of where to go next.
Its influence remains strong and its message rings true in today’s climate. The 400 Blows tells a precautionary tale about how our treatment of children in our society heavily impacts their development. As the popular saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a kid.” If this village fails to hold up its end of the deal, then the children have no chance for success. The film’s observations look at the way that we can improve and move forward. The conclusion of the story leaves it rather ambiguous as to how Antoine will turn out and whether any future interaction would already be too late. I could easily see this film being a great entryway for anyone into the French New Wave, as it tells an accessible story that can be digested, before getting into the work of Jean-Luc Godard. It ticks all of the right boxes and earns its place in film history.