François Truffaut invigorated French cinema when he released his highly personal debut feature film, The 400 Blows, back in 1959. The 400 Blows stands out as one of the quintessential movies of the French New Wave. Truffaut shares what it is like to be an unruly boy who roams the streets of Paris and provokes the irritation of his teacher, parents, and eventually, the law. The analysis of reckless youth is the most prominent theme throughout The 400 Blows.
This child, Antoine Doinel, lacks an abundance of discipline. His parents do not know how to control him as he defies their expectations. Their inability to teach him right from wrong only perpetuates Antoine’s lack of direction in life. He skips class and lies that he missed class due to his mother’s death. Then, he plagiarizes one of Honoré de Balzac’s writings and runs away so that he will not have to face his parents.
He even steals a typewriter and tries to sell it. When this plan fails, he returns it only to end up spending the night in jail for theft. Antoine’s rebellion diverts him from enjoying a seemingly normal home and education like the rest of his classmates. Yet, his parents do not know what to do with their son’s lack of discipline. He wrestles with what he wants out of his unpredictable upbringing as he struggles to balance himself on that thin line between childhood and adulthood.
Childhood is not always the most innocent chapter of life for some people. The 400 Blows follows Antoine’s downward spiral in order to reveal how much unhappiness and rebellion control him. The final freeze-frame shot of Antoine still lingers in my mind because I now understand his personal shortcomings.
The Infamous Freeze Shot of The 400 Blows
In film and video, a freeze-frame is when a single frame of content shows repeatedly on the screen—”freezing” the action. This can be done in the content itself, by printing (on film) or recording (on video) multiple copies of the same source frame. This produces a static shot that resembles a still photograph. The first known freeze-frame was in director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1928 film Champagne.
The tracking shot follows Doinel’s escape from the detention center. As he hobbles across the Seine estuary, the boy stops short of the lapping waves, walks parallel with the tide and turns to face the camera. The image freezes and the title ‘FIN’ appears. If the moment was a happy accident “I told him to look at the camera,” recalled Truffaut, “like taking a bow in the theater but he didn’t look long enough so we froze the frame” it remains the most effective use of freeze-frame in movie history. With Doinel’s face full of bewilderment and uncertainty, it is a full stop on childhood before the sentence of adulthood begins.
The last shot has been justly celebrated for its ambiguity. This brief but haunting release from the harrowing experiences that fill the movie brings Truffaut’s surrogate self in direct contact with his audience, an intimacy he was to pursue throughout his career.