ScreenPrism: Why is the therapist scene in 400 Blows (1959) so iconic?

Professor Julian Cornell: The story goes – and I'm always a little skeptical because I haven't read an interview where Truffaut said this – but the story goes that the person they hired to play that part [of the therapist] didn't show up that day, and they had to improvise it. Jean-Pierre Léaud is reading the script but also improvising part of it, and he's speaking to the camera and to us. He's looking at Truffaut, and Truffaut is asking him questions. Antoine is talking about stuff both that Truffaut did, which is steal from his grandmother, and that Jean-Pierre Léaud did. He talks a little bit about his childhood and a little bit about Truffaut's, so it's a mix of the lines he was given and a mix from his own experience. 

It works very effectively. It's so striking because, first of all, like a lot of the scenes in the movie, it's very different from the other scenes in the movie. Second, it's almost like Antoine’s talking to us – like we're the ones who are assessing him. We've been watching this film for about an hour and a half – it's almost towards the end – and we're sort of assessing how we feel about this kid. When he tells his story, we both feel bad for him, and we also think, I don’t know. Stealing from your grandmother is really crappy, on the list of things to do. It’s your grandmother, she's taking care of you. Why? 

Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) speaking to the therapist

What’s brilliant about the performance is he's so offhanded that the scene really challenges us to think about how we feel about him, and that's because he's addressing us. He doesn't really look at the camera – he's looking down, shifting his eyes from side to side. He's very fidgety, as one would be if being interrogated by not just any psychiatrist but the one from the juvenile prison. It's an assessment, and he has to watch what he's saying. In some sense he's trying to be honest but also to tell the person who's listening what they might want to hear. He's been warned before that scene, by one of his fellow prisoners to be careful because what he says goes on his record. He's asked in the interview if he's lost his virginity, if he’s had sex. He says he tried, but it didn't happen. Again, this is the stupid stuff a 14 year old would do.

The way the scene is set up: there are a couple dissolves in there, but it's a stationary camera. His body language, the performance and the improvisations – I don't know what percentage of it is made-up, how much is improvised or how much was reading the script, but it feels offhand and off the cuff. So it feels like what he is saying is truthful to his experience and the character's. Because the shot is held a long time, and there are these dissolves, we have a long time to contemplate what he's saying – not just to focus on the fact that he did that stuff that's questionable – it's more that we assess our feelings about him. 

Another thing I like about the movie is that it doesn't offer these typical sociological or facile psychological explanations of why he is this way – is it because his mother and stepfather don't really love him? Well, they do love him, sort of, and they tolerate him – there's no pat explanation ever given. You've got to figure it out.

Read more from Ask the Professor: Were the five sequels to "400 Blows" a new kind of episodic storytelling?

Julian Cornell is a Lecturer in Media Studies at Queens College – CUNY, where he teaches Film Genres, National Cinemas and Film Analysis. He also teaches Film at New York University in the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television in the Tisch School of the Arts, and Media at the Gallatin School For Individualized Study. He has also taught Film Studies at Wesleyan University. He received his B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University, an M.A. in Film and Television from the University of California, Los Angeles and his PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University. Prior to teaching, he worked in Scheduling and Network Programming at HBO and Cinemax, and in independent film production. His primary research and teaching areas are American, Scandinavian and Japanese cinema and genre cinema, including disaster movies, science fiction, children’s films, animation and documentary.