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Boyhood before ‘Boyhood’: The juvenile delinquent and Francois Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’

For this column, despite my dependence on it for the title, I did not re-watch Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’, I do not want to watch that shit again. I’m sorry to its six Academy Award nominations, to its 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, to its $57 million box office, but I just don’t like it. My distaste for this film has led me on a journey to find the films that I feel do boyhood correctly. The cinema of boyhood, before ‘Boyhood’. 

At this point, it is fair to ask why I even care. Why I, who, funnily enough, am not a boy going through puberty, have named myself the defender of male adolescence. Don’t worry boys, I will protect you from the big bad Richard Linklater! This, contrary to what I have perhaps hyperbolised for attempted comedic effect, is not an attack on Linklater; I have not used the Oxford Blue as a means of publishing my hate-mail. Rather, I care about the cinema of boyhood because it is a genre that asks to be cared for. 

Before I finally get on with talking about what my title promises, I want to clarify that this column is going to be spoiler-free. 

Firstly, because I’m not an arsehole; secondly, because of pure self-interest in that I want those who haven’t seen these films to still read my articles; and, thirdly, because I’m a narcissist, and the less I can talk about the actual films the more I can talk about whatever I want, which will most likely be myself. 

In all the cinematic portrayals of boyhood I will go on to write about, which I describe in this vague way so I don’t have to stick to a set plan of which portrayals I choose, the joint characteristic of the young male is that of the down-trodden, the outsider, the underdog. 

‘The 400 Blows’ (1959) is a French-language film directed by Francois Truffaut. It is the first in Truffaut’s series of five films that follow the life of the character Antoine Doinel – this film on childhood is the birth of Doinel’s cinematic life. It is a life saturated with naughtiness from its conception. ‘The 400 Blows’ is a tale of rebellion: of school-skipping, stealing and back-talking.

Frankly, boys are little shits. And Truffaut provides a (tempered) celebration of this. He does not condemn boyhood but makes the bastard charming. Just as we root for the underdog, we adore the lovable rogue. The more we see Doinel told off, ignored or mistreated, the more we care for him. Truffaut, moreover, achieves a superb balance of light and darkness, making Doinel and his family’s own view of a film they watch together a kind of meta-comment on the film they are in: ‘Funny? But it had depth.’ There is a beautiful balance of the silly and distinctly youthful in scenes of passed around pin-up calendars and fairground rides that are placed contrafactum with the thoughtful and sombre in, well, I’ll just say sad scenes if I’m going to maintain my promise of no spoilers.

‘The 400 Blows’ is a film that makes ‘boy’ synonymous to ‘mini man’. The barrier between childhood and adulthood that Doinel stands at seems to be a trap door – his transition from boy to man seems to promise to specifically be from juvenile delinquent to delinquent. A shift expected to perhaps be rather hopeless;, however Truffaut’s navigation of rebellion is in fact the image of hope. In the exact moments that thrust Doinel into adulthood, his youth shines through most brightly; when he shakes hands with his peers in greeting it is the smallness of their joint palms that sticks out. I reiterate that Truffaut does not align boy and man but boy and mini man. 

Adulthood comes with an aversion to the life-affirming; hope has become cringey and crass; we shy from things that make us either too happy or too sad. So, thank god for the child of cinema, who forces us to care, who forces us to look out for them because they are the very type of person who needs looking out for. It is when we look at life through the child’s eyes that we allow our own life to be affirmed. 

Cinematic boyhood specialises in the small. Just as adolescence creeps up on us, depth swims at the shallow end and the swimmer is definitely wearing armbands. 

Unfortunately, as is often the way with these cool arty films, ‘The 400 Blows’ is not the easiest to stream. Find it on the BFI-Player, rent or buy it on Amazon, or go old school and get the DVD (which you can take out from the Taylorian). 

With illustration by Alex Abrahams.

Martha Wilson

Martha, one of The Oxford Blue's columnists, is a second-year English student at St Hugh's College. She is really funny, pretty and cool.