By the French New Wave’s standards, François Truffaut made films with a startling straightforwardness. Yet something about the man’s entire body of work feeds the sneaking suspicion that, no matter how many times you’ve watched everything in it, you’ve never gazed upon its depths. This applies equally to his beloved, obliquely autobiographical The 400 Blows and its sequels, his well-known pictures like Fahrenheit 451 and Jules and Jim, and the Small Changes and Mississippi Mermaids of the world that few seem to watch today outside of revival screenings. Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut’s cinematic colleague and one-time friend, ultimately dismissed nearly everything in Truffaut’s filmography as nothing more than “stories.” Every cinephile must go through a moment of temptation to do the same, but the films have a way of haunting you into revisitation after revisitation — just like, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s. No wonder those two had so much to talk about.
Les Mistons, the second short film Truffaut ever made and the first that ever satisfied him, showcases these qualities in miniature. A teenage girl named Bernadette, skirt flying in the wind, bicycles across the countryside for a rendezvous with her strapping gentleman friend. This presents a fine opportunity for a quintet of mischief-minded prepubescent boys. Obscurely tormented by the older woman’s desirability and their own inability to process it, they follow her around day after day, sometimes tormenting her, sometimes helpfully fetching her tennis balls, but usually just staring. They might spend one afternoon playing cops-and-robbers; they might spend another getting beaten up by the object of their quasi-affection’s boyfriend. They lead rich lives, these rambunctious, short-shorted, early 20th-century petits écoliers.
Then the narrator, a now-grown member of this comically harmless gang, remembers the central event: the man who has become Bernadette’s fiancée has perished in a mountain-climbing accident. This leads to the quintessential Truffaut moment, elegiac yet faintly troubling, that is Les Mistons’ last: months after the incident, the boys happen upon a darkly dressed Bernadette strolling stiffly down the road. Hiding behind a wall, they stare as she passes and disappears from view. Experienced Truffaut-watchers should also note, of all things, the visual effects. Early examples of the filmmaker’s light but selective touch appear in the slow-motion kiss one boy plants on Bernadette’s bicycle seat and the reverse motion that allows another to rise from his imaginary death and re-enter his imaginary gunfight. Almost everyone operating in the creative space blown open by the French New Wave could do this sort of thing, of course, but few besides Truffaut could do it — or would even consider doing it – in the service of understatement.
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