Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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Those of you who have read a fair share of my reviews might know, by now, that I'm not Francois Truffaut's biggest fan. I've previously reviewed seven Truffaut films. I've awarded four-stars to just three of them (The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and The Story of Adele H.), three-stars to another three (Shoot the Piano Player, Stolen Kisses, and Two English Girls), and only two-stars to Day for Night. While those ratings aren't abysmal, by any stretch, they're probably a star or a half-star less, on average, than the same films might receive from reviewers more solidly in Truffaut's camp. Small Change (1976) is easily my favorite Truffaut film that I've seen thus far and will be this director's first five-star rating from this reviewer. This film is not only innovative and original but very touching. Anyone who loves children or who looks back upon their own childhood with nostalgia will enjoy this film.
Historical Background: Truffaut's own childhood was lonely and unhappy, as he depicted in his debut film, the semi-autobiographical The 400 Blows (1959). In a broader sense, however, most of the main characters in Truffaut films reveal the vestiges of their childhood experiences. Truffaut had an unusually strong sense of how our formative years impact our later lives. After a stint as a film critic, Truffaut became one of the seminal figures of the French New Wave and one of the advocates of films as personal statements and directors as auteurs who provide the central creative force for each filmmaking project. Truffaut also collaborated on scripts for other directors. "Small Change" is a rather poor translation of the French title for this film, "L'Argent de Poche," which means "pocket money," but Pocket Money have already been used for a Paul Newman film in 1972.
The Story: Like childhood itself, Small Change is episodic, providing us with a series of life-forming vignettes, loosely linked together by the common presence of most of the characters in two classrooms in a boys' school. History teacher Jean-François Richet (Jean-François Stévenin) supervises one class and literature teacher Chantal Petit (Chantal Mercier) the other. Both are earnestly devoted to their students. Richet is married to Lydie (Virginie Thévenet), who is pregnant, and has the baby, a boy, part way through the film. Truffaut uses these tangential relationships to extend the range of his paean to childhood all the way from infancy to about age fourteen.
There are about a dozen children who get significant screen time, but the two that are closest to being central protagonists are Patrick Desmouceaux (Georges Desmouceaux) and Julien Leclou (Philippe Goldmann). Viewers who are familiar with Truffaut's so-called Antoine Doinel film cycle will easily recognize Patrick and Julien as two aspects of that character. Patrick is a charming, blond boy of twelve-and-a-half years of age, struggling with boyhood issues, in general, and the discovery of the other sex, in particular. Patrick lives with his father, who is confined to a wheelchair and requires an automated page-turner for the simple act of reading a book. Patrick and his father have a warm, mutually respectful relationship. Patrick chips in with household chores, such as bringing home groceries from the store. In class, Patrick is sometimes well prepared, but, on one occasion, when pressed to recite a passage that he has not studied, notes the clock outside the window poised at twenty-nine minutes past the hour, knowing full well that the bell signaling the end of the school day will sound at half-past. He stalls and glares at the clock until it duly frees him from his ordeal.
Patrick takes lessons in approaching girls from Bruno Rouillard (Bruno Staab), an older boy of about fourteen. They pass up a trio of girls and one who is alone, but Bruno finally approaches a pair of young girls, Corinne (Corinne Boucart) and Patricia (Eva Truffaut), and asks them to the movies. After some hesitancy, the girls agree, and the foursome soon ends up in the balcony. Bruno puts his moves on the older of the two girls, Corinne, and is soon smooching with her. Patrick and Patricia, unable to overcome their inhibitions, glance at the amorous pair and agree that they're behaving stupidly. Bruno, seeing his friend's ineptitude, suggests they change places and applies his same moves to Patricia, who suddenly no longer finds kissing quite so stupid after all. Poor Patrick is still unable to do more than watch. Bruno suggests another rearrangement of the seating and ends up situated between the two girls, deftly putting one arm around each.
Patrick sometimes tutors Laurent, the son of Nadine and Monsieur Riffle, who are both hairdressers. Nadine is an attractive and sexy middle-aged woman and, as a hairdresser, maintains herself nicely and dresses to kill. Patrick can't help but notice and develops a ridiculous infatuation for the woman. He even goes to the flower shop and purchases some red roses (which, he notes on a sign, signify "amour ardent"), and delivers them to his friend's mother, to declare his love. She graciously accepts the flowers and tells Patrick to be sure to thank his father, effectively squelching Patrick's amorous ambitions.
The dark aspects of childhood are portrayed mainly in the segments pertaining to Lucien. Lucien is a welfare case, living with an abusive mother in a shack on the edge of town. He is dark-eyed and disheveled, surviving by scavenging and petty theft. He visits the local arcade when it's closed to gather change, watches, and broken combs that have shaken loose from the pockets of patrons riding "The Trident," a kids ride featuring miniature airplanes. In class, Lucien is truculent and unprepared, partly because he has no books. He has no choice but to wear the same soiled shirt and tattered jeans to school everyday. Near the film's end, the school nurses, conducting the annual physicals, discover bruises, scars, and burn marks all over Lucien's body. The authorities are soon hauling off his white-haired witch of a mother, as she hurls obscene epithets in every direction.
Another featured character is the lovely little Sylvie (Sylvie Grezel), daughter of the Police inspector (Jean-Marie Carayon) and his wife (Katy Carayon). One evening, the family is headed to a nice restaurant and Sylvie insists on carrying a filthy purse, shaped like a toy animal. Her mother and father demand that she leave it at home, even offering her one of her mother's purses as a substitute. Sylvie won't oblige, however, so her parents finally lock her in the apartment and leave. The resourceful Sylvie, who lives on the third floor of a large apartment complex, picks up her father's megaphone and calls out into the courtyard, "I'm hungry," over and over again. Soon, she has the attention of the entire apartment complex. Several of the neighbors, working together, rig a trolley system to deliver Sylvie a dinner fit for a queen although the bottle of wine suggested by one little boy is not included.
The De Luca brothers, Mathieu (Claudio De Luca) and Franck (Franck De Luca), are another pair of rascals. They brazenly con their friend Richard Golfier (Richard Golfier) out of the 8 francs given him by his father for a haircut by providing the cut themselves. One brother says to the other, "Hey, this is my side," as they each clip one side of the boy's head. "Watch out for the ears," says the other. Later, Richard's father marches the boy down to the Riffle's hairdressing shop, demanding to know how they could be so unprofessional. One of the De Luca boys also has the task of telling a dirty joke to an assembly of young lads. Neither the joke teller nor the audience truly understands the meaning of the joke and, in fact, the joke annoyingly concludes just short of the punchline.
The Richets have a neighbor, a blond woman (Nicole Félix), whose husband walked out on her some months ago. She has a toddler, Little Grégory (Grégory). Grégory's mother leaves him unattended for a few minutes in their third-floor apartment while she goes searching for her wallet, which she misplaced. Grégory is soon pursuing the cat out the window and onto a ledge. As he teeters on the edge, a crowd gathers, at ground level, below. Grégory plummets three stories into some bushes, gets up unfazed, and announces to the stunned crowd, "Grégory went boom!" His mother walks up and promptly faints.
Truffaut also resorts to one of his favorite tactics: the film within a film. The whole town has gone to the movie theater and there's a short about a famous mime named Oscar (Yvon Boutina), purporting to reveal the details of his birth. It's a humorous sequence about how Oscar's mother, Madeleine (Laura Truffaut), a Frenchwoman, had married an American GI (Jean-Francis Gondre), who was among the liberators. He taught her how to "chew gum" and the result was little Oscar. Not knowing whether to speak French or English, baby Oscar (Sebastien Marc) learned to whistle instead, and thereby grew up to be a mime.
Then, finally, there's Martine (Pascale Bruchon). Actually, she's the first character that we meet in the film, briefly, and then returns near the end. She's on her way to summer camp and drops a postcard to a cousin, into the mail slot. In the film's final segment, Martine meets Patrick, who has gone off to the same camp and it's love at first sight. "Dear Cousin, it finally happened," she now writes. During dinner, Patrick and Martine slip out simultaneously, for the respective restrooms, and end up sharing a little kiss in the corridor. As they return, the entire cafeteria erupts in riotous cheers.
Themes: One of Truffaut's core ideals, I think, is that children are to be loved and cherished and, in those instances when they are not, society needs to step in and protect each child's rights. The minimum that every child deserves is security, food enough to eat, shelter and a place to sleep, opportunity for an education, respect and affection, and freedom from abuse. Truffaut gets a bit carried away advocating suffrage for children, but at least his heart is clearly in the right place in relation to youngsters.
Production Values: Although the vignettes were scripted, the film has a very natural feel to it, as though Truffaut just came along and captured on celluloid what was happening anyway. He manages to depict quintessential kinds of experiences of childhood, resembling those etched into our individual memories. We all remember the kid who came to school in ragged outfits and the agony of our first encounters with puppy love. The faces of the various children are sufficiently distinctive to enable us to tell them apart almost immediately. Almost a dozen are adequately developed to become distinctive personalities with recognizable individual quirks. There's also a realistic mix of adults, with the main focus on the kinds that are influential in the lives of children. Truffaut doesn't demean the children with satire or mockery but instead showers them with sympathy and sincerity. The script's only false step is a little bit of na´ve politicking on the part of Truffaut, by means of a speech made by the teacher Richet to the children, concerning Lucien's situation. The advocacy of "children's rights" is sensible enough, but the particular remedy espoused (voting rights for children) borders on the ridiculous.
The Eastmancolor cinematography by Pierre-William Glenn is mostly straight forward, as it had to be, dealing with a lot of children who were not professional actors. There are some artsy shots now and then, such as some exceptional lighting effects involving The Trident ride and a superlative shot on the train, when Patrick and Martine first take note of one another. The soundtrack features non-original music by Maurice Jaubert and Charles Trenet.
The performances by the children sometimes reveal a degree of self-consciousness, especially the first few sequences with Sylvie. She gives away her awareness of the camera, but mostly, the performances are genuine and affecting. Truffaut succeeds in capturing images of the children as though they were simply going about their normal life routines. The film's two lead child performers, Georges Desmouceaux as Patrick and Philippe Goldmann as Julien, do an excellent job. Among the girls, Pascale Bruchon was highly effective as Martine. Two of Truffaut's daughters appear in the film. The adult performers appear to have been nonprofessionals, as well. Apparently, the Town of Thiers gave Truffaut free rein to shoot his film there.
Bottom-Line: This is a marvelously touching, witty, and tender depiction of childhood, with many moments of joy, sadness, and poignancy. Childhood is truly a time of grace and Truffaut has devoutly captured its essence in this cinematic psalm. Small Change is in French with English subtitles and has a running time of 105 minutes.
I have to close by stating that it was contemptible of Truffaut to include a joke, in his film, omitting the punchline. By way of protest, I hereby offer this punchline without a joke:
So, she says, "Should we make the boy a fruit cocktail?"
That is my proposed punchline for Truffaut's unfinished joke. If you'd like to read the full text of the joke from Small Change, click the "Leave Comments" button and read the first comment. I've also offered another alternative punchline and invite you to suggest your own.
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Video Occasion: Good Date Movie
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12