by Sam Juliano
When movie fans are asked to identify the prime proponents of the cinema of childhood the names of Steven Spielberg and Francois Truffaut invariably dominate the discussion. In the case of the former the label seems more than justified all things considered, but of the Frenchman Truffaut’s twenty-one films only three could reasonably be framed as as films dealing with and populated by kids. The reason for the misrepresentation is undoubtedly the fact that the New Wave master’s debut feature, Les Quatre Cents Coup (The 400 Blows) is one of the celebrated and influential films of all-time, and the one most often named as the ultimate work on adolescent alienation. To be sure Truffaut did chronicle the aging process of his Antoine Doniel character from that film in a series of films like Bed and Board and The Soft Skin, but at that point the youthful parameter had expired. In 1969 he again explored the true-life story of a deaf and dumb boy raised in the outdoors –The Wild Child- and then seven years later he wrote and directed what was to be his final foray into the pains and wonders of childhood with his magical Small Change (L’Argent de Poche). The film is unquestionably the purest manifestation of his part-time childhood preoccupation, and more than any other single film in this countdown it delineates the essence of the subject. The film’s title was actually suggested by Spielberg, who noted at the time there was another American film called Pocket Money, which of course is the literal translation from the French.
In Small Change Truffaut understands that there is no sense of time continuity in the perception of a child, with the events of one day having no impact or resonance on what happens the next. It is the best possible excuse for making an episodic film, though like any other narrative film everything must be finely orchestrated and timed. With kids understanding what is largely at hand the director employs the acute style of the vignette to best transcribe his central themes. The film is set in the town of Thiers in southern France, and is shot in a naturalistic style with a lot of nonprofessional child actors. There is wonder, sexual awakening, anarchy, mischief and hidden abuse running through these irresistible chapters driven by kids who exhibit varying measures of resourcefulness, resilience and precocious behavior. Some of the early classroom scenes recall The 400 Blows, but Small Change is sunnier and infinitely more hopeful, even with the tragic circumstances surrounding one boy’s story. Truffaut repeatedly implies that kids will always rise to the occasion, never accepting defeat, and always landing on their feet. This last assertion is visualized in the most literal sense in what is surely the film’s most extraordinary sequence: a toddler of about two years old is left alone in the apartment after his mother leaves to frantically search for a missing wallet. Unattended, the boy gleefully opens and empties the contents of food packets that were just purchased by the mom, creating a mess of epic proportions. He then picks up the cat, and carries it to an open window about five stories high. It falls to the safety of a ledge, and to the horror of some people who have gathered below the boy embarks on a perilous venture to rescue the animal. Inevitably, the infant falls to a nearly certain death, but his flyweight, the angle of the fall and the cushioned shrubbery happily conspire for a different resolution. The mother arrives shortly thereafter, quickly surveys the laughing boy and the lofty window and faints to the ground.
Truffaut is not adverse to illustrating how kids could be just as cruel and manipulative as their parents. In one corker of a segment a young girl prepares to go out with her parents to a restaurant. The problem is she also gets her stuffed animal ready for the trip but brushing it with water from a fish bowel. The mother is understandably exasperated by the girl’s behavior and informs the father that she refuses to leave it behind. They briefly try and persuade her to take another in its place, but she shakes her head spitefully. The father gives up, tells her to suit herself and they leave her behind as punishment for her obstinance. The girl’s mischievous expression makes it clear this is exactly what she had hoped for. She locks herself in and hides the key in the fish bowel to make it appear that her parents are the culprits. She grabs her father’s battery powered megaphone and repeatedly tells all the neighbors at the window that she is hungry J’ai faim, j’ai faim, j’ai faim. The neighbors go to their windows, with some proceeding to shake their heads, while others inquire as to what happened to her parents. Without a hitch the girl tells them they went out to eat and left her home. The revelation causes quite a scandal, and some of the neighbors even infer it is a criminal matter, which is especially ironic when you consider the girl’s father is a local Chief of Police. Several of the neighbors lower or raise food to her via a conveyor system, and one of the kids even tries to sneak in a bottle of red wine before an alert parent intercepts it. The girl gets a veritable smorgasbord of items including a full chicken, an array of cheese, fruit and bread, proving it was well worth taking a pass on her parents’ offer.
Two “resourceful” young boys become barbers and succeed in botching up a haircut, in an episode that recalls the lame brained antics of The Three Stooges. The butchered hair infuriates the boy’s father who rushes back to the legitimate barber “Riffe” who was supposed to perform the service, demanding an apology. Naturally Riffe tells him he had nothing to do with the haircut, and that he once won a gold medal for his outstanding work. A double date at a movie theater provides for another marvelous bit and a young boy develops a crush on an older women in the film’s most tender story.
Yet, Truffaut doesn’t lose sight of the fact that even the most idealized portrait of youthful enchantment can fail to include a darker context. A young Dickensinian street urchin named Bruno lives in a run down shanty on the edge of town. He steals food and the silver insignia off a Mercedes. He lives by his street smarts. Eventually during a physical exam in school the marks of the abuse are seen, and the authorities are alerted. Child abuse is a heinous crime throughout Europe, but especially in France, where the penalties are the harshest. One character stated earlier “Children exist in a state of grace” and that they survive the dangers that would have destroyed an adult. Truffaut honors children everywhere with this rapturous look at the younger set’s most indomitable qualities. Assisted by his naturalistic cast, the wonderfully evocative score by Maurice Jaubert and lovely cinematography by Pierre-William Glenn, he created what is still a quintessential investigation of life’s most treasured property – our beloved children.