François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” is a staple of film courses, the frontrunner in the French New Wave Cinema. Not surprisingly, I watched it in class when I was in college. Our analysis now escapes me, but I remember getting teary-eyed while watching it. The 12-year-old protagonist, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is one of the most unforgettable characters ever created in film. He has stayed with me for decades.
My 16-year-old daughter, who took a film class last year, has never heard of “The 400 Blows.” I was aghast. What her film class lacked, I was determined to provide. And so, we watched it on DVD recently.
5 Lessons from François Truffaut
Then and now, the film has a powerful effect on me. But this time, I was watching it not as a college student but as a writer. I couldn’t help but pick a few lessons from François Truffaut. Here are my top five:
(1) Write a Living, Breathing Protagonist
Truffaut follows Antoine Doinel so closely, and Jean-Pierre Léaud portrays the character so realistically, that it’s as if I know him. Antoine is a little imp who plays hooky and then lies about it by claiming that his mother died. In addition, he plagiarizes Balzac and runs away from home not once, but twice. But he’s also the kind of boy who does chores on his own and returns a typewriter he has stolen. Antoine is mischievous, but also vulnerable, likeable, and sympathetic. He has spunk. I can’t help but root for him.
(2) Create an Escalating Conflict
The film starts with a simple conflict: Antoine gets in trouble when he’s caught with a pin-up poster inside the classroom. As a punishment, he stands in a corner of the room behind a blackboard. He misbehaves throughout the movie, with increasing consequences. He always gets caught with his every little mischief, getting in trouble in school, at home, and finally with authorities.
(3) Write Interesting Secondary Characters
The other characters in the film provide strong support: the self-centered mother; the playful father; and Antoine’s rich friend, Rene. They all have revelations. The unhappy mother is having an affair. The carefree father turns out to have a heavy burden when it’s revealed that he’s not the boy’s biological father. Even Rene has more to him than meets the eye. His family is rich, but the boy is practically raising himself in a big house that’s almost always empty.
(4) Treat Your Setting like a Character
Paris is arguably a character in this movie. The opening shots mimic a travelogue, showing the Eiffel Tower and other iconic Paris landmarks. Truffaut meticulously shows Paris streets, fountains, parks, and movie theaters. He shows the tiny apartment in the Montmarte neighborhood where Antoine and his family live with such realism that I felt claustrophobic watching those scenes.
(5) Write a Memorable Ending Whether in films or books, the ending is as important as the beginning. Truffaut did not disappoint. The final scene is exhilarating in its simplicity. The camera follows Antoine escaping from the juvenile detention center, running endlessly until he sees the ocean, which he always wanted to see. Keeping this long scene intact was a bold move. A lesser director would cut it in the interest of a faster pace.
Truffaut ended the movie at this point, with a haunting freeze frame of Antoine. What will happen to the boy? Will he get caught? It will keep you thinking long after the film ends.