We watched The 400 Blows last night, by Francois Truffaut. It’s a French film in subtitles, made in 1959. It’s about a 13-year-old boy, Antoine Doinel who seems to live a relatively normal life in Paris, but is constantly getting into trouble. He gets terrible grades at school, he is a liar and he steals. It’s clear from the beginning that his parents are self-absorbed, and their parental discipline leaves a lot to be desired. They smack him if he does something really bad, but mostly just ignore him. He starts to run away from home to avoid trouble, and with the help of another delinquent friend begins to engage in more serious crime. The title comes from a French expression meaning “raising hell”, and this is just what the boy starts to do.
The movie is a brilliant portrayal of how a person would grow up not just with the fact of nobody caring much at all about him, but with the awareness that this was so. Antoine has an interview with a psychologist in a juvenile detention facility where we learn the circumstances of his early childhood that reveal just this awareness. Nobody wants Antoine around and he knows it. His parents are just as amoral as he is. One might be tempted to say he needs examples of right and wrong. But he actually has that, from his authoritarian schoolteachers. What he needs is love.
My wife commented after the film, “There’s a huge obvious hole in the film- God.” Looking at it from our Christian perspective, it’s clear that the boy’s real problem is that he as absolutely no sense of why he is even alive, or why it matters at all what he does. The only thing his parents want from him is to not be bothered. Early in the film, the mother discusses how awful it is that some other woman she knows keeps having babies- “Like rabbits. Disgusting.” And then they discuss how to get rid of Antoine for the summer- sending him away to camp is better than having him around the place doing nothing.
And so Antoine acts in whatever way suits him at the time, whatever will get what he wants and avoids trouble. So he lies, forges notes from his parents and makes up stories about why he wasn’t in school. The only thing motivating him are brief, little pleasures. He goes out to the movies with his parents and has a wonderful evening in the bright lights of the city, laughing about the movie. One of the most touching scenes is when he is being driven away in a police truck to the detention facility, through the city, and he looks out at the bright lights and cries.
The 400 Blows does a beautiful job of portraying this hopelessness and pointlessness of a self-centered life, as well as showing the damage this kind of life does to those around us. Antoine hurt everyone around him, but everyone in Antoine’s life had only ever hurt him too. How could he be expected to act out of love for others when he’d never seen it himself? How could he even know what that kind of behavior would look like?
This is why there is no hope outside of Christ. Christ is the great example for all of us what truly sacrificial love looks like. We can look at his example and learn how we ought to treat others. He is much more than just an example of course- His satisfaction for sins, besides being a wonderful example, also reconciles us to God giving us the ability to actually begin to change. And then, following His example, we can begin to live lives centered on love for others, lives with purpose.
The 400 Blows is not a light, fun, entertaining movie. It’s a bleak portrayal of nihilism and despair. But it’s masterfully done, a forceful picture of life without purpose, life without God.