The title of the classic French New Wave film 400 Blows seems odd at best. It’s a direct reference to the common French idiom faire les quatre cents coups which is more akin to the English “raising hell”. The protagonist Antoine, does just that, he raises hell. While living with his biological mother and stepfather in a small apartment in Paris, a series of mischievous misadventures lead him to a prison cell. Throughout the story neither reward nor punishment sways Antoine from the path of chaos and ruin that he burns for himself.
In this story as a whole, manifested as film, there is a disconnect between the work as cinema when compared with the contemporary American understanding of movies. The most notable difference is the age one. Initially, when it first came out, The 400 Blows was hailed as a modern masterpiece of technological advancement. However, its black and white grainy shots of shaky pictures of Paris seem to fall short of modern standards of visual perfection on the big screen. The question when evaluating this piece becomes, is it acceptable to impose modern day standards of cinematic technological perfection on an older piece of film? Seeing as cinema, like all art, is a personal experience, there shouldn’t be any qualms with an audience member expecting more from a form that they have previously judged based on a particular characteristic.
The question of plot and meaning also arises. From ancient sagas to modern plays, plot is evaluated almost independent of the medium it is given in. For example, an observer can judge whether or not they like the plot of the 11th century Beowulf while reading it or watching the 2007 motion capture movie. Thus the plot of The 400 Blows could be evaluated as either good or bad regardless if an individual found the film off putting in terms of technology. So let’s look at the plot. We have a child who we know grows up without much attention and then acts out. He can’t be reasoned with and pathologically lies. But then, what happens? He escapes the observation center and then looks at the camera after touching the sea. So what did the audience learn? Were they simply just watching an ornery French child for two hours? What did they learn of the human condition? That when you treat children poorly they act poorly? That doesn’t sound too profound.
Indeed, this work is lacking in many places. Poor quality technology distracts from the little meaningful art there is, there are awkward shots that seem to have no logically causal or artistic meaning, and the plot lacks in both philosophical and entertaining qualities. All these factors combine to create an underwhelming film. Critics even now though continue to hail it as a great piece of cinema. However, I fervently feel less ecstatic. Maybe someone else will enlighten me. I’m more than open to the conversion. Maybe one of you out there, undoubtedly smarter than I, can explain the artistry to me? But until that time I will stand by my critique.