First there’s a pinup picture: Adolescent Antoine Doinel, busted in class transporting the contraband goods, begins a cycle of punishment and retaliatory misbehavior that inexorably mounts, burying him under an accretion of lies, accidental arson, plagiarism, truancy, and petty larceny. Eventually the boy leaves the cramped apartment he shares with his hard, bottle-blonde mother and clownish, cuckolded stepfather for the more peaceful climes of the juvenile detention center.
Young François Truffaut was a bit of a delinquent himself, and the director remembered— The 400 Blows still resonates through Truffaut’s isolation of essential details, which stand out with the focus of unblemished memory: that ancient, gouged, chalk-coated classroom that’s seen a thousand wiseasses sent to its corner; the horror of impending discipline as a teacher’s called into the hallway; the tactile, gasping chill from the milk that Antoine quaffs from a stolen bottle during a night on the street. It is the nature of the film for those who love it to recognize themselves in it, and so it never fully recedes into history.
A remarkable confluence of talents are at work here: Cinematographer Henri Decae gets the coldness of Parisian dawns and Christmas displays in black-and-white widescreen; Jean Constantin’s score meshes pluck and sad swoon; and there is 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, appearing here for the first time as Antoine (he’ll never be so withdrawn again). The film was Truffaut’s arrival, a triumph of publicity at ’59 Cannes, the loudest early success of the loose confederation of New Wave filmmakers, and a milestone in autobiographical cinema. In recounting his youth, Truffaut cut close enough to the bone to earn this reply from his stepfather: “You probably want to make us believe that we’re responsible for the way you are. . . . You little shit, how much did you cost me in movies?”