ONE SCENE | The Puppet Show

Observing the wilderness of childhood. By Louis Rogers

While The 400 Blows rarely strays from its charismatic young protagonist, in a handful of moments its attention turns elsewhere. One of these is an extended scene depicting a crowd of children watching a puppet show, which looks like “Little Red Riding Hood”. The film makes an obvious shift towards documentary – none of the spellbound audience members, who look to be between two and six years old, are acting – but rather than rupturing the fiction, there is something particularly, peculiarly consistent about the scene: it’s distinctly true to the film. 

The scene serves to bring out the whole film’s habit of lingering on the uniquely unselfconscious comportment of children with observation that’s empathetic but never cloying. The screen is filled with children’s faces – agape, dismayed, delighted – stretching back out of focus, and we are transported back to a world with blurrier edges, in which furniture and adults towered above us and simple hand puppets seemed truly magical. However, director François Truffaut films the children with precision and an eye for idiosyncrasy: not as cute little innocents but as real and distinct people with complex, expressive faces and eloquent gestures. His approach brings to mind his young star Jean-Pierre Léaud’s appreciative remark that Truffaut “spoke to children like they were adults”. Neither is this a rosy picture, exactly. As a crowd (or mob) the children roar and scream in ways that hint at the rambunctious energy and, possibly, the darker impulses which elsewhere seem to unsettle the film’s adult characters (eventually, Antoine is taken to a juvenile “Observational Centre”, whose name seems to suggest baffled curiosity more than purposeful intervention). At the back of the theatre, Antoine and his friend are finally revealed, chatting like a couple of blokes watching TV in a pub. They are both of this world and aloof from it: kids and kids no longer.

The northern English photographer Shirley Baker made many compelling images of children; her depictions, like Truffaut’s, meet their subjects with complex and serious intensity untouched by condescension. One series uncovered in her archive studies the young audience of a Punch and Judy show. Like the attendees of “Little Red Riding Hood”, they express a wide range of full-blooded and potent emotions, and their attention is total. The effect is at once disquieting and moving; the children look strange and, of course, recognisable (childhood is the experience we all share). Across the black-and-white grain of Truffaut’s film and Baker’s photographs, an engaged and articulate form of pure observation is discernible, one which seems to offer a kind of access to the wilderness of childhood which eludes conventional, adult forms of categorisation. 


Shirley Baker, “Wilmslow, England, 1965”, from Shirley Baker (MACK, 2019). Courtesy Nan Levy for the Estate of Shirley Baker and MACK