François Truffaut was on a bit of a roll in 1976. He’d had a major international success in 1973 with Day For Night, which brought back the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and The Story of Adele H. (1975), while not as extravagantly successful as its predecessor, still fared very well with the critics. This must have come as an enormous relief to the beleaguered director, whose previous efforts, Two English Girls (1971) and Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me (1972) had both been critical and financial failures. He probably felt that he could relax a little now, experiment a bit, get a little looser with his design as he moved forward.
As it turned out, that forward move would complete a full circle for Truffaut, returning the auteur to some of the same concerns and themes he’d so memorably explored in The 400 Blows, 17 years prior. Small Change is a film about childhood, told without a trace of condescension or sense of pandering to its subject. The director treats his young protagonists less as miniature versions of adults and more as a collection of contradictory characters existing in a world of ever-present wonder and discovery, if not always kindness. Which is not to say that Small Change is as dark as The 400 Blows in its depiction of childhood, nor is the subject matter treated with as much theoretical distance as in The Wild Child (1970). While not everything in the movie is sweetness and light, on the whole, there is an effortlessly buoyant quality to the film that practically lifts the audience out of their seats on golden waves of nostalgia.
Set in the small, provincial town of Thiers, Small Change follows the minor key adventures of a number of schoolchildren and attendant adults over the span of a few weeks during the summer of ’76. Shot by cameraman Pierre-William Glenn in a casual documentary style and with a great deal of improvisatory charm, the cast of mostly non-actors are observed by Truffaut’s eye with a level of gentle understanding that allows them to simply exist at their own pace, outside of the usual film story demands. It’s hard to imagine the scenario by Truffaut and longtime collaborator Suzanne Schiffman as consisting of much more than a series of sketchily drawn outlines for the characters to fill in with their own individual quirks and idiosyncrasies. This is a film that lives because of its casting and whose final shape was almost certainly discovered in the editing room. The story, as far as it goes, is mostly a collection of loosely connected vignettes drawn together out of a richly detailed array of memories of being young and gloriously alive.
Truffaut apparently never entirely got over his troubled childhood; survivors of abuse rarely do. In his case, it appeared to have given him a rather acute case of arrested development, which, as far his art went, was both a boon and a burden. As much as his stunted relationships with women directly contributed to some of the weakest entries in the Doinel series, his uncanny ability to distinctly recall to mind the vibrant and immediate texture of childhood resulted in some of his most beloved works, Small Change included. He was somehow able to get the details, the feelings, exactly right – the queasy delirium of first love, that endless stretch of time before the class bell rings, the delicious hilarity of relaying a dirty joke that neither the teller nor the listener entirely understands. If the dominant tone of the film is a sort of semi-detached bemusement mingled with swaths of deep empathy, then the theme is life itself, in all its variegated forms.
The children in Small Change are a motley bunch. There’s Patrick (Georges Desmouceaux), a sweet-faced cherub who takes care of his wheelchair-bound father and has a hopeless crush on the mother of one of his classmates. At one point, he goes on a double date with Bruno (Bruno Staab), the little Romeo of the crew who unsuccessfully tries to school him in the ancient art of the pickup. (One of the two young ladies in this very funny scene is played by Eva, daughter of François. Truffaut’s other daughter Laura also has a small part in a brief film-within-the film.) Sylvie (Sylvie Grezel), a cute little dickens with a wicked gleam in her eye, refuses to go to a restaurant without her beloved stuffed animal purse and so her parents go ahead without her. She gets her sweet revenge, though, announcing to the assembled neighbors through a bullhorn that her cruel, cruel parents have left her home alone and hungry. Self-possessed Martine (Pascale Bruchon), wise beyond her years, knows what she wants out of life but gets more than she bargained for after her very first kiss. Little baby Grégory (credited as simply Grégory) follows his kitten over the balcony in a scene straight out of Hitchcock. Instead of the inevitable tragedy, his trip over the edge ends in farce – Grégory goes “boom,” but gets up with a giggle.
The resiliency of children is an undercurrent in the film, explicitly brought to the fore in a discussion between one of the adult couples. The only places where Truffaut stumbles are in sections like these, where he hits his themes a little too square on the nose. The worst example of this tendency comes late in the film when the male schoolteacher, M. Richet (Jean-François Stévenin), gives a speech to his class about the inevitable cruelties of life and how the world would be a far better place if only the children were given the vote. His exhortation is occasioned by the discovery that one of their own, Julien (Philippe Goldmann), had been suffering under the abusive hands of his mother. Julien’s sad tale is returned to throughout Small Change, but here Truffaut shows a mature restraint, refusing the lure of cheap melodrama. The shots of Julien roaming the deserted streets at dawn in the wake of the previous night’s carnival are devastating enough. He wears the same filthy outfit throughout the film and occasionally sleeps on the street. Julien may be a welfare case, but his storyline avoids cheap audience manipulation.
The film that Small Change most reminds me of is Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday. As different as the two are in their comedic impact, they share the same sort of casual looseness in construction, a seemingly off-the-cuff mastery at capturing the humanizing gestures of everyday life. Most of all, the quality that unites the two is their enormously high re-watch value. Both feature a large cast of characters whose movements are fun to track, spotting this one in the background of one scene and that one moving through the foreground of another. Both films have hilarious set pieces that cry out for repeated viewings, like the scene in Small Change in which the two brothers, Mathieu and Franck (Claudio and Franck De Luca), con their friend into letting them cut his hair, or the one in which they make each other breakfast (“How is it?” “Excellent!”).
Incidentally, Wes Anderson would pay homage to Small Change many years later in The Royal Tenenbaums, basing the sons of Ben Stiller’s character on the boys played by the De Luca brothers. When asked by the New York Times to choose a film to screen and discuss for a piece they did on him around the time that film was released, Anderson decided on Small Change. Which just goes to show that, despite the massive differences in style between Truffaut and Anderson, great films can bridge the gap of decades, connecting the hearts and minds of cineastes along a subtle line of influence. Small Change may be a minor masterpiece in Truffaut’s impressive oeuvre, but the youthful energy it issues forth will no doubt forever continue to be a source of renewed inspiration for film lovers every time they return to it.
by Shannon Gramas