They’re two of the most respected films of French cinema; worlds apart in timeline, but eerily similar in theme. It’s difficult to compare them, since in their own respectful rights, they are different and separate films, but there’s nothing like turning up the heat in the kitchen and finding out which one delivers better.
The 400 Blows (1959) dir: Francois Truffaut
One of the key milestones in the French New Wave was director Francois Truffaut’s astonishing debut Les Quatre Cents Coups, praised by critics and directors alike (including a glowingly positive Akira Kurosawa). This tale of rebellion in post-war France as a young boy struggles to deal with an insignificant, hard existence. He lashes out against society not in the violent ways some might expect, but simply by retreating from a positive attitude and becoming more indifferent toward morality and society. Filled with wonderful cinematography and spot-on direction, there’s little to complain about here and it’s likely The 400 Blows will move you emotionally, even if only in the smallest of ways.
Au Revoir les Enfants (1987) dir: Louis Malle
What I like about this war movie by Louis Malle is that it chooses not to go straight for the jugular, but to steady its pace and take a realistic, simplistic look at life in French wartime. We understand that the newcomer to a boarding school for boys is different from the others, and realize soon enough that he is a Jew being hidden. But there’s no screaming Hitler, no gasping for breath in concentration camps, in fact there are no massacres whatsoever shown on screen. But Malle implies a fair bit; human emotion, the struggle for acceptance, regret, and heartache, so that when the film’s final frame shows and there is a cut to black, we don’t need to see what will happen; we know.
But these short reviews won’t help us to distinguish which of the films are better. Let’s look closer. Let’s look at character, because the human personality is the key witness to the events of these films. In The 400 Blows, the boy Antoine Doinel is cold and retreated. He is bored and annoyed with his family of simplistic values, yet he still manages to enjoy the time he spends with them. The sadness in it is that he slowly grows apart from them; realizes how different they are and begins to assure himself they will never understand him. The villains of Truffaut’s film seem to be the parents, and the director allows us to see Doinel’s eventual dislike of them. In Malle’s movie, there seems to be no explicitly stated villain; sure we all know it’s dem Nahtzee’s, but for a long time, Malle lets the films’ character tale stay on the two boys, acquaintances before friends, until it is finally cruelly snatched away. This is a gutwrenching eventuality, and it hurts. But we can see from quite early on in The 400 Blows that Doinel is a different boy; a difficult boy, and his rejection of society’s mores is not a gutwrenching eventuality, but a predestined fate that seems to have been born into him. This is nowhere near as affecting to the viewer as the happy-go-lucky adventures and quick ending of Au Revoir les Enfants.
As far as entertainment value goes, I would say that The 400 Blows is a better movie to watch because, despite the fact that the hurt lasts the whole movie and not just a few scenes, we can relate much easily to the character. In childhood, I’m sure we’ve all felt those inevitable moments of careless rebellion and social rejection; we’ve all been there. I think that inside of us is a little bit of Doinel, and vice versa. This makes his tale more compelling, and the final breathtaking freezeframe of him on the beach that little extra heartbreaking.
It’s impossible to say which movie is better, but hopefully this will help you make up your mind:
If you’re looking for a deep, compelling character study, choose The 400 Blows.
If you’re looking for a fact-based drama about wartime persecution, choose Au Revoir les Enfants.
Okay, so maybe that didn’t help. So go watch them both. You tell me which one was better by leaving a comment below. Go on. Do it. The opinions of all you readers are probably much better than my stupid words.