A boy on a beach comes face to face with his own potential nearly 4,000 miles from where I once did the same. Who wore it better?
The Film: Francois Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical portrait of misunderstood adolescence
The Potable: ¾ of a bottle of 2014 Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, Regional Collection
When I was the same age as The 400 Blows’ Antoine Doinel, I lived with my family across from a tobacco field in rural North Carolina. I was surprised with a four-wheeler for Christmas. I shot rotting Halloween pumpkins with a 12-gauge. I popped my brother in the nuts with a shovel handle I found in the yard and used as a lightsaber.
What could my own childhood have in common with the one portrayed in the seminal film of the French New Wave?
From the earliest scenes it’s clear that both Antoine and myself attended school. The classroom layout was similar, each student given his own desk. Our styles, however, could not have been more different. While one of us dressed, in my opinion, like a bit of a loser, the other spent a good year of middle school wearing vintage olive chinos that once belonged to his grandfather.
I got no compliments, but neither did Antoine.
Throughout the film, Antoine engages in small acts of rebellion. He scribbles on a porno calendar, swipes a couple of bucks from his parents, and shoots spitballs from a rooftop onto pedestrians below. But perhaps most crucial, he one day makes the innocent decision to skip school and dick around town with his friend.
When asked to explain his absence the following day, Antoine tells his teacher that his mother has died. A bold move. Naturally this backfires, and when his father finds out, he backhands him in front of his classmates, which, say what you will about the South, but goddamn. In retaliation, Antoine runs away from home, spending the night inside a local printing press?
I, too, ran away from home once, though my walkabout lasted barely half as long as Antoine’s. Fed up with chores one Saturday evening, I took off down a dusty road through the woods. Humming a song from the Legend of Zelda, I took refuge in a field less than a mile from my house and wrapped a tobacco leaf around a scratch on my arm. Content for maybe 20 minutes, I realized that this new life meant never playing Legend of Zelda again. As did Antoine, I shuffled home.
Once back in school, Antoine’s English instructor teaches them the word “bitch.” I thought this was funny, but at that age I already knew that word, which doesn’t say much for the French education system.
Antoine’s misdeeds ultimately lead him to steal a typewriter for cash. Why a typewriter? Is this a symbol for the lack of communication between Antoine and his parents? Between children and adults? Either way, the machine doesn’t exactly fit underneath a coat, and there’s nothing subtle about two idiot kids lugging a Remington through the Paris metro. Obviously they’re caught, and Antoine ultimately gets carted away to juvie.
Did I ever steal? This author will plead the fifth, though a stray lug nut may or may not have found its way into my pocket at the Rocky Mount Wal-Mart. Out of panic, Antoine attempts to return the typewriter. I got scared and threw the lug nut in a ditch.
Ultimately though, The 400 Blows is about redemption, and it would do the movie no favors to end with our protagonist languishing away in a luxurious French chateau. Earlier in the film, Antoine tells a friend that he’s never seen the ocean, and after escaping his detention, he runs as fast as he can to the sea.
As far as cinematography goes, I will say it was a wise decision to keep the French equivalent of Dirty Dicks Crab Shack out of frame. This is a moment of epiphany, a boy unshackled from responsibilities he never fully understood. He is free to grow, for better and for worse. Was I similarly neglected? Not at all. I was well-fed, well-loved, and unjustly moody. But I suppose all young men romanticize their own exile, even if it is self-imposed.
Do I relate to The 400 Blows? By my tally I was at about 73, but I guess I can tell where Truffaut was coming from.
Verdict: need to rewatch