Les Quatre Cents Coups is one of François Truffaut’s finest films. It follows the life of a young French schoolboy called Antoine Doinel(played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) who is refused the affection and attention he needs by his parents; the boy makes his way in the world as best as he sees fit.
Not surprisingly, Doinel is a relentless source of trouble in and outside his home. His teachers lose their minds over his conduct, he’s arrested for theft and smokes cigarettes in so glorious a manner at his friend’s house, not long after running away from his home. Truffaut based this film on the events in his childhood and how they ultimately led to his passion for cinema.
A moving scene in the film shows the boy reading a novel by Honoré de Balzac and falling mindlessly in love with the prose. So much so that he plagiarizes it on his writing exam. The director, although portraying this scene in so mundane a fashion, hints at the boy’s want to escape his senseless reality and literature becomes the first of the means to do so.
Escapism is a poignant motif in the film and it becomes heavier with the boy’s many attempts to run away from home. There is a restless spirit in Doinel that makes him intolerant to a life of conformity. And he feels that going to school and coming home to a couple that is incapable of playing a good parental role is simply unbearable.
Where Truffaut’s genius is revealed is in his marriage of serious themes and humor. The boy’s psychological issues have enormous weight and the director balances them with a comforting dose of comedy. Especially amusing is the boy’s session with a psycho-analyst at the juvenile detention center. His manly demeanor(a mannerism he has had to learn very early) and childish physique combine so cheerfully. It’s a joy to watch him explain so fearlessly the source of his troubles: parental neglect.
Put in context of when the film was made(1959), Les Quatre Cents Coups sheds light on life a decade after World War II. The boy’s parents are always so pre-occupied with work that their son comes as an after-thought. The rush into capitalistic endeavors sent thoughts of good parenting and cultural upbringing quickly down the drain. Doinel then becomes the victim of a Post-World-War Paris. But he refuses to stay one.