Matchup of the Day: Lady Bird VS The 400 Blows
Today we have a matchup featuring young folks who have a rocky relationship with their mothers. Both films are directorial debuts. Both are autobiographical to some extent. In Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan plays “Lady Bird” McPherson, a high school senior desperate to escape Sacramento, California. Lady Bird dreams of attending a university in the east (which she believes to be more cultured), but family finances are prohibitive. It is clear that Lady Bird and her mother’s interactions are strained from the opening minutes of the film. During an argument about which college to attend, Lady Bird throws herself from a moving car.
The 400 Blows involves a thirteen year-old boy, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who lives in a cramped apartment with his mother and adoptive father. Antoine’s mother shows him little affection, and in fact intended to abort him until his grandmother intervened. Perhaps this contributes to Antoine’s proclivity to getting into trouble throughout the film.
The fathers in both films are more easygoing than the mothers. Lady Bird’s father avoids conflict as much as possible to the point of her mother having to take the role of the “bad guy.” Antoine appears to get along well with his adoptive father, at least during the earlier part of the film. He stands up for Antoine when his mother criticizes him — that is, until Antoine gets into more trouble than he finds tolerable. A noticeable difference between the two films is that, despite the constant mother-daughter conflict in Lady Bird, there is no real doubt that there is love beneath the antagonism. This is not the case with The 400 Blows. The only time Antoine’s mother appears to care about his well-being is when he spots her kissing a strange man while playing hooky. Not wanting Antoine to spill the beans to his father, she treats him kindly.
While Antoine is repeatedly disciplined for his errant behavior, including stealing a typewriter from his father’s place of work, Lady Bird never suffers any significant consequences for her wrongdoing. Even after her being suspended from school, nothing really seems to come of it. (NOTE: Lady Bird’s suspension is due to telling a pro-life advocate who was nearly aborted, “Listen, if your mother had had the abortion, we wouldn’t have to sit through this stupid assembly!” That Antoine was also almost aborted probably warrants further analysis when comparing the two films.) Eventually, Antoine is sent to a youth detention center. His mother requests that the facility be near the seashore because he has never been to the sea. That is the last nice thing she does for him. Since the neighbors find out about her extramarital indiscretions, she no longer has any incentive to butter up Antoine.
At the end of The 400 Blows, Antoine escapes from the detention center and runs off to the seashore. The last image is a freeze-frame of Antoine’s face. What the viewer chooses to take from it is open to interpretation. The conclusion of Lady Bird takes place after the protagonist spends a night engaged in excessive drinking. She is attending the eastern college she longed for. Out of gratitude, she calls her mother and says “Thank you.”
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