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The Four Hundred Blows: Deviating from Hollywood norms

August 4, 2009

by Nuejam

I have been watching plenty of old movies recently as part of a Classics of World Cinema online course at a local college. As we progressed through the canon of world classics and came to French New Wave, my curiosity was piqued by the title of François Truffaut’s 1959 film The Four Hundred Blows. One month earlier, a classmate from Marx & Marxisms had recommended the same film for its perfect post-modern depiction of “the de-centered individual” – an idea we had encountered reading the French-Algerian Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. What film could possibly match this theorist’s description of “mammiferous larvae [turning] into human children?”

Antoine, the youthful protagonist of the film, and his friend René cut school and hit the Parisian streets. They find their way to a small carnival, where Antoine is shown entering the “Rotor,” a spinning machine that uses centrifugal force and a drop-away bottom to hold riders against its outer walls in a gravity-defying spectacle. The scene opens with a shot from above the main rotor, looking down at the opening door. This vantage point establishes the viewer as an observer, and the participants in the ride as spectacle.

The next shot is a gallery of spectators observing Antoine and the other riders, who, entering to amuse themselves, have become amusement for the gallery. As the camera spins around with more and more speed, following Antoine and the rotating centrifuge, the gallery faces blur and lose their distinction. Voices call out in screeches and unintelligible utterances.

Spectacle as a theme – its effect on groups of people – is repeated later in the film when Antoine and René visit a puppet theater. The camera shows us an audience full of children giggling and shouting incomprehensible things at one another. Cut to two young boys enjoying the performance together; one puts his head on the other’s shoulder, and the sequence fades out. This shot parallels one of Antoine and René walking off of the frame after Antoine exits the “Rotor.” These scenes describe the need for a collaborator to navigate the chaos of wordless voices and nameless faces of a society whose expressive capabilities have been reduced to drivel by the spell of the spectacle. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, a contemporary writer and filmmaker to Truffault, wrote:

“The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation.”

Therefore we see both the puppet theater and the “Rotor” as “the focal point of all vision and consciousness” presenting the spectators – and the riders, for “even the deceivers are deceived” – with absolute separation from each other.

Back in the “Rotor,” the camera cuts from the gallery to Antoine’s feet. He has left the ground – or rather, the bottom has dropped out from under him. As a child, Antoine was abandoned to the care of his grandmother, only to be taken back by parents unsure of their love for him. The “Rotor” centrifuge realizes a stable center, something we are reminded of by the camera shots that hang over the main rotor. Antoine does not have a stable center anywhere, yet authority is continuously flinging him against the walls of schools, prisons, reform schools and labor houses.

At the same time as Antoine struggles against social walls and is turned into spectacle, he is placed under observation. The position of the camera in the “Rotor” sequence and its attendance to the gallery remind us of Antoine’s observation by his teacher Sourpuss in the classroom, his parents at home, and the authorities later in the film. Youth, and all the possibility of deviance it represents, are forces that society wants to pin to a wall and label.

When Antoine is awaiting a Psychiatric review near the end of the film, a fellow inmate reveals his label to Antoine: “I know mine by heart. I’m an unstable psychotic individual with perverted tendencies.” Yet it is exactly these perverted tendencies that hold allure for adults. When Antoine exits the “Rotor” building and rejoins René the camera pans left but stops short of leaving the scene, setting up a small interaction where an adult male from the gallery notices Antoine, then stares after him and almost follows him off the camera. When deviance is not alarming for the threat it constitutes to social order it is appealing for the alternatives and possibilities that it represents. While we find new ways to discipline and punish youth with our hands, we constantly place the hope for our future in theirs.

In this case the adults are the deceivers, and yet even Adults are not free from observation nor can they discount the youthful gaze. Antoine and René are startled to discover that Antoine’s mother has seen them during their jaunt. However, they simultaneously observe her embracing a man who is not her husband. Neither of these secrets – Antoine and Rene’s truancy and Antoine’s mother’s affair – leaks out in the film’s narrative, suggesting the power of observation as a form of social control of both youth and adults. Observational power in the film also has a gender dynamic, apparent in Antoine and René’s observation of his mother as a desirable woman (and thus raising questions of desirable femininity) and also when his father mentions (over dinner no less!) the breast size of a secretary whom he suspects of using the same desirable femininity to win the good graces of his boss.

Truffaut’s filmic commentary on observation, spectacle, deviance, central force/(de)centered identity, and youth may end with Antoine staring into the camera looking lost, but this is not a suggestion that Antoine ends up like those other adults. Instead, Truffault takes a longer, more caring approach to the effects of a certain political and moral environment on the youth raised therein: Antoine’s character is depicted at later stages of his life in Antoine and Collete, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love on the Run. It is a refreshing change from the modern Hollywood idea that a child’s psychology is, inevitably, to become a mirror of the (parental) authority held over them. Antoine is not assimilating, nor is he rebelling against the present authority so that he might take their place; instead he is choosing his own path in life, despite adult forces and strict observation that seem intent on shaping him in a definite direction.

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