Young Love

Darrell Hartman on Truffaut’s Small Change

François Truffaut, Small Change, 1976, color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Production stills. Photos: Hélène Jeanbreau.

“I NEVER TIRE of filming with children,” François Truffaut once said. “All that a child does on-screen, he seems to do for the first time.” More than any of the director’s other works, Small Change (1976) is devoted to cataloguing these magically fresh exploratory acts and gestures.

Made in collaboration with the people of Thiers, a steep-sloped town in central France, Small Change was shot over a two-month school break during the summer of ’75. Truffaut’s workshop approach to filming a group of child nonactors brings to mind Laurent Cantet’s recent film The Class (2008), but unlike that timely docudrama on classroom politics, Truffaut’s film is an ode to the peculiar delicacy and resilience of youth.

Near the end of Small Change, a teacher named Richet (Jean-François Stévenin) lectures his pupils: “Things balance out in an odd way, so people who have had a difficult youth are often better equipped to confront adult life than people who have been overprotected or very loved.” He’s referring to Julien Leclou (Philippe Goldmann), a student who lives with his abusive mother in a ramshackle house on the edge of town. But Julien also embodies a neglected-youth archetype that’s prominent in Truffaut’s oeuvre—most notably in the person of Antoine Doinel, hero of The 400 Blows (1959) and subsequent autobiographical follow-ups, and in The Wild Child, the 1969 film in which the director cast himself as a teacher bent on humanely socializing a boy who’s been raised by wolves.

Julien’s happier counterpart in Small Change is Patrick (Georges Desmouceaux), who lives with his disabled father but otherwise navigates the rules-filled world of adults the way most children do: counting down the school day’s final seconds, going to the movies with friends, washing the neighbor’s car for pocket money, and experiencing his first kiss—in an amusing fashion that, incidentally, is based on an encounter Truffaut had at summer camp.

Truffaut observed that “nothing is small when it comes to childhood.” But a scene in which a toddler tumbles out a high window and then somewhat surreally picks himself up as though nothing has happened demonstrates that, at the same time, the world is more than a minefield: “They knock themselves against life,” a young mother notes, “but they are in a state of grace, and they have tough skin.”

Small Change runs November 25–December 1 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here. The film will also screen on November 24 as part of the French Institute’s “François Truffaut: A Winter Portrait” film series. For more details, click here.