Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 69 (B)
The 400 Blows is the greatest movie ever made about unhappy childhood largely because Francois Truffaut, a product of an unhappy childhood, based so much of the film on his own life. With few exceptions (Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson), few directors understand the difficulty of childhood as well as Truffaut, and so few can get into the heads of children the same way Truffaut could. Pocket Money (aka Small Change) is another look at childhood from Truffaut, but one that mixes and understanding of how difficult it can be with an equal understanding of how joyful it often is.
The film follows the residents of Theirs, France, particularly the lives of the children, their parents, and their schoolteachers. One boy, Patrick (Geory Desmouceaux) struggles with young love as he displays shyness among his peers and an adolescent crush on his friend’s mother. The schoolteacher (Jean-Francois Stevenin) deals with his the anxieties of becoming a parent for the first time. The film returns periodically to troubled Julien (Philippe Goldmann), who lives in an abusive home.
Pocket Money is episodic by nature, and while most of those episodes are pleasant, the film doesn’t have the immediate resonance of The 400 Blows or The Wild Child. But Truffaut’s Renoir-like warmth towards his characters and his natural playfulness makes Pocket Money an enjoyable if minor work (though some apparently adore it, and Roger Ebert named it the best film of 1976 over Taxi Driver…which is nuts). The film has a great sense of how children interact with each other and with parents and a natural, breezy flow to it. Some of the more notable episodes: a little girl, annoyed that her parents leave her behind, calls on her father’s megaphone for food from the neighbors; the troubled young boy sneaks into a movie, much as Truffaut had when he was a boy; a boy tries to tell a dirty joke but has trouble getting past his own laughter; and, in a masterful scene of Hitchcockian tension and French New Wave playfulness, a toddler chasing a cat on the ledge of a window, only to come out unharmed.
Pocket Money is particularly strong when dealing with portraits of young love. When Patrick and his ladies’ man friend pick up a couple of girls and go to the movies, Patrick is too tentative to make a move. When Patrick falls for someone for the first time, it is for a friend’s mother, and the scene where he brings the woman roses is equal parts sweet-natured, adorable, and awkward. Best of all is Patrick’s first kiss with Sylvie (Sylvie Grezel), in which Truffaut masterfully choreographs a scene of missed opportunities, embarrassment, and sweet awkwardness.
Ultimately, though, it is the most serious scene in the film that gives it the most resonance. Julien’s abuse at the hands of his mother is discovered, and suddenly his difficult behavior- shoplifting, inattentiveness in school, trouble connecting to other kids- all makes sense. It’s a rare case in a Truffaut film where society steps in and does an act of pure goodness- Julien is rescued and put into a foster home, and the schoolteacher reveals his own painful childhood to his students. The man is the polar opposite of the teachers of The 400 Blows- caring, warm, and affectionate. “Injustice to children is inexcusable…each of us need to be loved.” It is perhaps a bit too didactic and a repeat of past Truffaut films, but the lightness of touch the director handles it with more than makes up for it.