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Crime and Punishment

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Les Quatre Cents Coups, dir. François Truffaut, 1959

The 400 Blows - an odd and misleading English translation - is regarded as one of the greatest of French films and firmly rooted in the distinctive aesthetic of the French New Wave. It is technically and visually a masterpiece but it's not by any means a pleasant or reassuring watch. It is in many ways the complete antithesis of Malle's Le souffle au cœur, even though both share much the same material in terms of narrative perspective and intention. Sure, the films are separated by twelve years - a veritable eon in what was a rapidly developing industry at the time - with Les Quatre Cents Coups very much an overtly groundbreaking and experimental concept in realism and French pessimism, but the films stand as diametrical opposites in that where Le souffle au cœur captured the inner turmoil of a conflicted psyche drifting in the syrupy world of comfort and colour, Les Quatre Cents Coups presents us with a monotone bleakness so stripped of externalised joy or hope and yet somehow its young protagonist, Antoine Dionel, still constantly sparks to life with a sense of resilience, independence and resourcefulness. In many ways he represents the typified antidote to the existential despair which surround him, a fact not lost metaphorically on the viewer with the film's famous closing sequence of the young protagonist striding to break his confinement and reach the open waters of the sea.

Where Laurant Chevalier represents the privileged embodiment of a "faux crisis" so readily embraced by the intellectual bourgeois, Antione Dionel stands for the pragmatic struggle of the poor against the daily grind of indentured poverty. Oddly, both films are set in the same time period: the immediate post-war of 1950's France. It is striking how differently both directors view French social reality: the Dijon of Malle's is suburban, bustling, idyllic, cohesive, humoured, eclectic; the Paris of Truffaut is grimy, down-trodden, repressed, joyless and despairing. Against this backdrop the young 14 year old delinquent, Dionel (Jean-Pierre Léaud in one of the great child-performances of all time; equal to that of Benoît Ferreux in Le souffle au cœur) goes about being a kid on the fringes of a barely functional system. School is one place where order and discipline are metered out firmly, but Dionel seems to feel no reason to invest himself particularly astutely so he spends his life giving his teachers grief and playing truant. When caught out, he sets about to concoct an increasingly elaborate scheme of lies and fabrications, including one where he claims his mother his just died. It is tempting to lose sympathy with him at the onset, except that Truffaut's intention seems to be to create a blistering critique of the state systems of care and education in France: early on, the school is a place populated by grotesque and sadistic schoolmasters; later on, the juvenile detention centre is equally brutal and barbaric.

If state systems such as school seem only to antagonise students into being objectionable and combative, what grander purpose do they serve? If the mechanisims of the lower working classes are designed to be so inhospitable and unrelentingly bleak, how are citizens meant to thrive, flourish and find meaning? In Dionel's case, if school is a regime of strict pettiness, then his home life is the equivalent of a domestic nightmare. He lives in a tiny sparse apartment with his thoroughly scathing and unloving mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and his somewhat kinder stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy) where all he seems to do is serve as a kind of domestic servant. He is tasked with all manner of chores (fair enough) but Truffaut seems to hone in on the filthier and more unpleasant nature of these: big noisy tin garbage cans stacked at the bottom of seedy stairwells seem to feature quite prominently, an allusion which reminded me of the startling domestic horror of something like Beckett's Endgame. When his chores are done, poor Antione sleeps in a tiny squat of a bed right next to the greasy small kitchen. There is not much evidence that his dirty clothes are ever laundered: he seems to go to bed in much of his tatty school uniform and then wakes up the next day and scoots out the door in the same kit. While this could be seen as an affecting portrait of the true nature of poverty, there is something disarming in the film's narrative consistencies: both his parents are employed; his mother is in fact rather elegant in a typical Parisian fashion and her costume a noticeable visual opposite to her son's. What is going on here?

I also mention this because, just when Truffaut seems to be establishing a pattern of wrist-slitting monotony that the poor boy's life entails - school - chores -sleep - school - chores - sleep - he throws in a handful of startlingly tender scenes which upend all sense of the pattern of cruelty and neglect he seemed to be working to create. There is one astonishing scene when his mother comes home and is sweet and tender and after allowing Antione a nice hot cleansing bath, invites him to sleep in a proper bed for once. The visual stylisation of this scene is arresting: gone are the darkened overtones, the grime and greyness, to be replaced by a scene of brightness, clean flesh, the freshness of stark white sheets. If Antione can be treated like this once, then why not all the time? Another scene when they all pile into the car and go off to watch the movies is likewise rendered with warmth and jocularity - they are transformed into a perfectly content suburban family.

Mostly, through, his life is one subject to deprivation and abuse. Eventually the situation at school escalates when he is expelled for plagarising Balzac and then he decides to run away from home - rather a good move in his case - and to finance this scheme, he steals a typewriter from his stepfather's office. He tries to sell it on the streets but quickly realises his streetwise craft is no match for the hustlers and thugs who try to wrestle it from him, so he then decides to unburden himself and return it. Of course he is caught. His mother, when summoned, refuses to have anything to do with him and so he is chucked in the slammer for the night, along with Parisian prostitutes and common criminals. From here it is a swift departure to a juvenile correction facility. A psychologist at least comes and assesses him and in a startling series of fragmented monologues (much of which Léaud apparently improvised to Truffaut's notes) he reveals the true nature of his family's broken past. One day, playing football, he sees an opening in the boundary perimeter and makes good his escape, finally free of all societal constraints, running until he reaches that elusive sea which seems to represent so much to him.

As far as a plot-line goes, the film is not complicated. Where it does succeed so splendidly is in its ability to capture the essence of the human drive, the flare which keeps us propelled and motivated to rise above our current predicaments. This may sound like an obvious human compulsion, yet there is something captivating in the way Truffaut pieces together a sense of the Everyman spirit for survival in us all. Antione Dionel is not a reprobate whose dalliance with petty crime poses a danger to society, rather it is society at large which is seen to corrupt and interrupt the progression of a normal lived life: the two are no longer in concert with one another, something has happened which has inverted the normal sense of society being an organic extension of the people who populate it. It is the realisation of this existential problem which drives the film's curious sympathies. Léaud's ability to capture and project a stoic appraisal of Antione's environment and his options embodies the fate of a wider consensus: the boy does not have a mean bone in his body and right from the very beginning his brushes with authority depict how aloof, disregarding and detached from humanity that authority - in its many guises - actually is. The schoolmaster is the first in a line of maniacal bureaucratic dispensers of sadistic power rules, but he represents the vague and impenetrable system of society itself.

A scene when Antione and his friend René Bigey (Patrick Auffay) attend a curious fairground attraction of a spinning cylinder which throws people against its walls and keeps them held there by the force of motion could be viewed as a larger metaphor for the circuitous and imprisoning nature of life itself: it is an entertaining escape for a kid but also embodies the sense of just how trapped and "stuck to the walls" Antione really is. After a while it becomes impossible to bodily remove oneself from such a scenario. His psychological assessment at the detention centre is a masterful stroke of dark satire: he is asked a series of deeply probing and personal questions and he takes the time to answer each one in intimate and individual detail and yet he is never provided any guidance, any assurance, any sense of feedback as to where he may have erred along the way. There is a sense that he is destined to become a statistical number in a file. What Truffaut is suggesting is that this is the state as a surveillance apparatus, not a provider of support to its wayward citizens in need of improvement or correction. It is a system predicated on dispensing punishments for the crimes one commits, but the very nature of these crimes and the ability to differentiate punishment from actual standards of living become diffuse and vague: Antione's very life seems to be subject to one continual punishment. The fact that the institution is referred to as an "observation centre" is therefore apt. It merely wants to keep a beady eye on those it considers a threat to its rules and regulations.

The final scene is mysterious and cathartic in many ways. The environment of the beach and the sea finally allows this claustrophobic film to breathe. At this point, it becomes obvious that Antione is no longer being pursued by anyone who wishes to re-detain him. He is free and he is just a boy, running. The film therefore takes on another dimension altogether. Antione's desperation to reach the sea becomes more a desire to chart his own destiny, to engage with the world on his own terms, finally free from the constraints of all that has so far hindered him. The very last iconic shot, however, adds a note of caution to this: having waded into the ocean, he suddenly looks back, as if someone has called him, and there is a look of startled resignation on his face. It's as if someone has indeed caught up to him. The frame freezes on this as if we are meant to reflect on the eventual futility of Antione's attempt to flee. Perhaps what Truffaut intended to mean is that there can be no complete escape from a world which has been so schematically fashioned for us, for better or worse our fate is to accept and endure it.


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