Last night we had a real.. boys’ club film screening. London Nautical, half a dozen sixth formers from St. Mary Magdalene in Islington, two teachers, Sam our film-maker, me, all male.
Truffaut’s autobiographical 400 Blows is pretty much a boy’s own story; it’s sampled on the Cinematheque clip DVD a number of times for sites (classrooms and staircases), and it features a wide range of dramatic situations – or rather variations on the same situation of teenager Antoine finding himself bumping up against authority – the police, his teachers, then reform school staff (just briefly, but in the form of a violent slap) and then his mother and step-father; not violent, or neglectful, these two, just inconsistent and reluctant to be distracted from their own affairs.
The sites are a catalogue of confinements: Antoine’s bedroom is pretty much the tiny hallway to their tiny flat – the front door jams up against his bed; he spends a night in a police cell, only to be removed to a kind of stand-up cage when the cell fills up with a clutch of prostitutes. We see from the inside of a police van, inside the perimeter fence of the reformatory.
There are two rhapsodic moments of pure release – one, paradoxically in a fairground ‘Wheel of Death’, the ultimate in confinement and claustrophobia – the other, at the end, surely the most powerful open space shot in cinema, culminating in Antoine’s direct look, frozen, back at the viewer.
Some great situations: imagine you’ve stolen a typewriter from your dad’s office and having failed to sell it on the street, have to dispose of it. Antoine’s solution is to take it back to the office, where he’s caught, of course. Or how about this as the biggest lie to cover for a day bunking off school: ‘Sir, my mother died.’
I’d seen it once or twice before, but never noticed one very poignant feature: the film covers only a week or so, and it’s Christmas: a Joyeux Noel on a shopfront, and a disconsolate Christmas tree outside the reformatory, and yet Antoine never registers this at all.