Truffaut draws a picture of social fallacy in the character of Antione Doinel in perhaps his most memorable film of the New Wave movement Les Quatre Cents Coups. A young teen in a dysfunctional family and a misfit at school, Antoine does not belong anywhere. Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical character choices lead Antione deeper into a web of trouble and establish him as a literary antihero.
Les Quatre Cents Coups opens in the classroom, where Antoine is made the scapegoat by his classmates for a forbidden pin up and humiliated when the instructor keeps him in at recess to write on the wall. Antoine’s role model Balzac the 19th century French author known for his dedication to meticulous realism is his source of inspiration. Antoine attempts to surpass his teacher’s expectations with an essay using Bazin’s philosophy and is accused of plagiarism. It is as though his mature intellectual interests are not even appreciated by the academic world.
At home Antoine fends for himself raking coal running errands and even wandering over to his mother’s vanity to play and explore. His mother, a working woman treats Antoine with the disdain reserved more for a servant than a son. Her cool attitude to both her husband and son reflect a deeply unhappy woman, trapped in a marriage of convenience. Her husband, Antoine’s adoptive father comes home full of humor and antics. As Antoine becomes more unruly he distances himself from the son he “gave his name” to and abandons him to his fate.
Antoine’s adventures in truancy with his only friend Rene leads him on a downward descent. He catches his mother kissing a man in the street. After the day’s adventure in an amusement park, Antoine has to answer to his teacher for his absence. Unable to forge an excusing letter from his parents, he tells his teacher that his mother is dead. Perhaps Truffaut attempts to suggest a Freudian projection of Antoine’s deep inner resentment against his mother’s cold upbringing on his life.
Rene attempts to look after Antoine, hiding him in a warehouse overnight and later keeping him in his own home. Like Antoine, Rene is a neglected and independent youth. But in Rene Truffaut casts a didactic contrast in social circumstances. Rene is privileged, he lives in a large spacious apartment, dresses well, and takes amusement by helping himself to his “inheritance” in his parents secret cash stash. For amusement he gets Antoine up to stealing a typewriter from his father’s work. When the heist goes wrong and Antoine is apprehended Rene abandons him to his fate.
Antoine goes through the justice system oblivious to the heavy consequences that are being set in place for the rest of his life. In a holding sell he casually smokes a cigarette in bed. His parents willingly surrender him over to a juvenile correction facility. There the rigid order of youth is a visual parallel to the school system Antoine began at the beginning of the film. There Antoine drifts from boy to boy in a naive daze. In a session with the psychiatrist off screen and remains on Antoine in a single long take as he divulges in a stream of conscious confessional. It is a scene reminiscent to spectators of the religious confessional booth. In a single long take Antoine answers directly to the unseen psychiatrist off-screen about his conflicted childhood passed from grandmother to mother and even his adolescent arousal and escapades around women.
Deserted by his friend Rene, denounced by his mother and absent from his father Antoine escapes the correction program and runs all the way to the ocean – reaching the place he had always wished to find but never been. There on the windswept beach Antoine stops and looks into the camera. Truffaut’s iconic finale to the film is a visual metaphor to the individual at the end of the line. The beach is the end of the world with a wall of water. Receding into nothingness Antoine an adolescent antihero, ostracized by the social system around him has no where else to turn but to the spectator breaking the fourth wall and closing the film in one of the stylistic emblems of the new wave movement.