L’argent de Poche
Francois Truffaut’s 1976 film L’argent de poche (Small Change) is a series of casually woven vignettes, the unlikely subjects and heroes of which are children.
Filmed in the idyllic French town of Thiers, Truffaut use its residents to comprise the actual cast. The film is a quasi-documentary, neither “straight” in the traditional sense nor staged as in a movie scenario. His unobtrusive style of direction fits; the improvisation plays nicely off the personalities of the characters at such a unique and imaginative time in their lives.
The most striking thing about the film is Truffaut’s perceptive attenuation to, and real interest in, the thought process of children. He himself had a troubled childhood, marked by rejection and brutality – he never met his biological father and was essentially disowned by his mother – and his fascination with this period has manifested itself in many of his films. It may be that the lack of attention he experienced in his upbringing gave him an acute awareness of the subtle ways that children are usually ignored or assumed to be automatically innocent.
As such Truffauts cast resolutely goes against this grain. A motley and mischievous crew, ranging in age from 3 months to the pre-teens, spend most of their days telling jokes, playing pranks, stealing, running away, laughing at their teachers, charming everyone, abusing each other, staging small coups against their parents, and trying to steal kisses from girls at every opportunity. Most of all they do a great job of being both vulnerable and invincible at the same time (the fantastic 70s patterns they wear while doing so cannot be overstated).
Though a child’s world is fraught with darker themes as well, and the film also addresses issues of neglect, abuse, poverty, and the absence of parents. While watching, I remembered how a critic had recently described Spike Jones’ Where the Wild Things Are. It was “a film about childhood, not a children’s movie”. I think Small Change might be in danger of receiving the same intimation, even though both films represent childhood more effectively than any moral-laden Pixar or Disney feature. So in answer to the persistent question - can children really be guarded against the improbability of their own worlds? – Truffaut’s answer seems to be: not really.
This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in his most iconic scene, which involves a toddler, a kitten, and an open window in an apartment several stories high. The build-up to the child’s fall is inexorable, and calculated. The mother faints at the sight and cannot be revived. But her son lands safely on a hedge, giggling wildly as if this had been his greatest adventure yet.
“Children exist in a state of grace,” Truffaut has a character say in the film. “They pass untouched through dangers that would destroy an adult”.