Arguably one of the most enduring images in the cinema of François Truffaut is the freeze frame that concludes his first feature-length film, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959). Following an escape from the depressing confines of his reform school, the film’s plucky protagonist, Antoine Doinel, runs through the countryside until he reaches the edge of the sea. There is a sense of triumph underlying the panning shot that takes in the vista of the shore, replicating Antoine’s first view of the ocean; however, this fleeting sense of achievement is met with unease when he turns away from the waves towards the film camera. As Antoine meets the gaze of the viewer, the final moment of The 400 Blows is one of resistance and fragility that is imbued with both hope and deep melancholy. The ephemeral state of childhood, which is often viewed through a lens of romanticised nostalgia, receives different treatment by Truffaut who does not shy away from addressing the brutality to which children are subjected and through which they must survive.
Truffaut’s exegesis of the adolescent’s attempt to find a place within a closed adult world is further explored in L’argent de poche (Small Change, 1976) – a film that Truffaut claimed traversed the dichotomy of childhood experience: “The dark side and the optimistic side.” 1 Composed of a series of loosely connected vignettes centring on the children in the provincial town of Thiers, the script by Truffaut and his frequent collaborator Suzanne Schiffman takes stories told by friends and random newspaper articles as its raw material, with the simple structuring device of “Unity of place: a small town. Unity of time: two months before vacation.” 2
A testament to Truffaut’s ability to enter the private realms of his characters, the film exists within the microcosm of the children’s daily lives, moving between their school, their homes, the quaint streets of Thiers that is the setting for much mischief making, and the local cinema where the town congregates every Sunday. The furthest the film moves from this community is in the first scene when a young girl named Martine sends a postcard from Bruère-Allichamps in the centre of France to her cousin, Raoul, who lives in Thiers. The sending of the postcard not only marks the start of Small Change, but also frames the structure of the film’s micro-narratives. With a cast of over 200 children between the ages of two weeks to 14 years old, the film’s episodic fragments may at first appear inconsequential; however, they evoke the disjointed structure of childhood recollection that is marked by ellipses, quirky signifiers and sudden shifts in tone.
The series of postcard memories that make up Truffaut’s film touch on the first blush of misplaced romantic desire, the construction of an identity in opposition to parental preferences and the shame that is felt at being perceived as marginal or different. Predominantly portrayed through the secret language and rituals of boyhood, Truffaut captures what he refers to as the process of growing up “from the first bottle to the first kiss.” 3 Remaining true to the principles of the auteur theory that he espoused, Small Change shares thematic resonances with Truffaut’s wider body of work and contributes to his explorations of budding masculinity, storytelling and the reconciliation of love and longing, while also subtly referencing Truffaut’s own experiences. Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram note that “aspects of Truffaut’s […] childhood and adolescence enter his films not at the level of narrative detail, but at that of underlying structures and themes, the significance of which goes well beyond the personal.” 4 What Truffaut achieves through the insertion of his own experiences and preoccupations is an intimacy that is unique to his cinema and that is explored on both a thematic and visual level.
The film is replete with references to windows – a repeated visual motif in Truffaut’s cinema – that emphasise both observation and perspective and serve as the entrance to the lives of the children; a space from which the film’s adult characters are generally excluded. This division between adolescence and adulthood is humorously underlined in a scene where the English teacher Ms Petit is summoned from her classroom of disinterested students who have failed to bring any life to a reading of Molière’s The Miser. Once she has left the room; however, one of the more confident boys named Bruno begins an impassioned performance of the text that Ms Petit hears through the windows as she walks through the school courtyard below. This exclusion is extended to the viewer when it comes to the impoverished Julien, whose cruel home life is alluded to but only exists off-screen. In such scenes, Truffaut does not exploit his characters’ innocence but approaches it with tender empathy.
The old adage that children should be seen and not heard is dismissed in the teacher Mr Richet’s final speech where he, clearly articulating Truffaut’s own beliefs, states, “I want to show that when adults are determined they can improve their lot. But children’s rights are totally ignored. Political parties are not concerned with kids like Julien or you. Do you know why? Because children don’t vote! […] because of my own childhood…I feel kids rate a better deal.” Mr Richet’s advocacy for children’s rights and agency is cleverly embedded in the structuring of Small Change, which is bookended by acts of writing that are delivered via voice-over. Just as Martine’s postcard is narrated at the beginning of the film, the letter that she writes at summer camp gives her the final say on the film’s action. In giving voice to his characters and highlighting their role in determining the narrative, Truffaut suggests that the children themselves are the film’s true auteurs.
Small Change (L’argent de poche, 1976 France 104 minutes)
Prod. Co: Les Films du Carrosse and Les Productions Artistes Associés Prod: François Truffaut Dir: François Truffaut Scr: François Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman Phot: Pierre-William Glenn Ed: Yann Dedet Prod Des: Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko
Cast: Nicole Félix, Chantal Mercier, Jean-François Stévenin, Virginie Thévenet, Georges Desmouceaux
- Joseph McBride and Todd McCarthy, “Kid Stuff” in François Truffaut: Interviews, Ronald Bergen, ed. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), p. 105. ↩
- Ibid., p. 104. ↩
- Robert Ingram, François Truffaut: The Complete Films (Cologne: Taschen, 2004), p. 145. ↩
- Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram, François Truffaut (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), p. 11. ↩