Essence of Truffaut: Les Mistons (1957)

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Jean Renoir has been quoted as saying, “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” When François Truffaut, one of Renoir’s most fervent admirers, made his first film in 1954, he was so displeased by the result — the eight-minute short Une Visite — that he considered destroying it; he didn’t even screen it for his friends until 1982. Three years would pass before he tried directing again, during which time he continued writing film criticism and also worked as Roberto Rossellini’s assistant. This experience paid off. His second short, Les Mistons, would be far more successful and was, in many respects, the movie that he would break into pieces and make again throughout his career.

Les Mistons, sometimes translated as The Mischief Makers or The Brats, concerns five pubescent boys (Alain Baldy, Robert Bulle, Henri Demaegdt, Dimitri Moretti, Daniel Ricaulx) and their collective infatuation with a young woman named Bernadette Jouve (Bernadette Lafont). Immature creatures that they are, they aren’t sure how to deal with this strange new feeling. “A virginal heartbeat has its own juvenile logic,” the film’s narrator (Michel François), an unidentified member of the group, explains. “Too young to love Bernadette, we decided to hate her and sabotage her love affairs.” Their childish attempts to break up her romance with gym teacher Gérard (Gérard Blain) have little effect, but an unexpected turn of events alters the situation entirely.

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The film was based on a short story of the same title by Maurice Pons, from his book Virginales. Like Truffaut, he wrote for the weekly magazine Arts-Lettres-Spectacles. “From reading Virginales and particularly Les Mistons, I acquired a store of images — the word ‘profusion’ wouldn’t be too strong — of such precision, and naturally of such beauty, that the desire to ‘fix’ that dream immediately became imperative,” Truffaut said in the film’s press book. However, in a letter dated October 2, 1957, after the shoot had ended, Truffaut confessed to Pons that his adaptation was not especially faithful to the source material and that, as such, he was afraid to show it to him: “Not only does the film that I have shot not correspond to your style but it even contradicts it. Why so? Quite simply because my sensibility is at opposite extremes from yours and it is impossible to create something — a film, a novel, etc. — that does not absolutely resemble oneself.”

This line suggests the idea of the auteur (“author” in English), championed by Truffaut and his fellow critics at Cahiers du cinéma magazine throughout the 1950s. Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana explain the concept in their biography of the director:

Like Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer, Truffaut advanced a simple argument: An auteur is primarily and exclusively a director. Mise-en-scène is the auteur stripped bare; it is what remains when all the subsidiary aspects of film disappear (screenplay, promotion, etc.). The only thing that is beautiful in the movies is the mise-en-scène; and this alone defines the auteur. […] What the critic sees in the film, thanks to the mise-en-scène, is a (self-)portrait of the director, the auteur himself. An auteur, then, when all is said and done, is a director who allows his intimate self to be seen on the screen, either through a multiplicity of masks, like Hitchcock, or by revealing himself with complete frankness, like Nicholas Ray.

Furthermore, the often polemical Truffaut declared that a true auteur’s entire body of work had value, even minor or flawed films, and that an auteur’s so-called “failed” films, in their boldness, were greater than perfectly balanced ones generally regarded as successful. “When I was twenty, I argued with [mentor and Cahiers co-founder] André Bazin for comparing films to mayonnaise — they either emulsified or did not,” he wrote in the introduction to The Films in My Life in 1975. “‘Don’t you see,’ I protested, ‘that all Hawks’s films are good, and all Huston’s are bad?’ I later modified this harsh formula when I had become a working critic: ‘The worst Hawks film is more interesting than Huston’s best.’ This will be remembered as ‘la politique des auteurs.'” He then admitted that, after years behind the camera, he and his fellow critics turned French New Wave directors had come to accept Bazin’s “mayonnaise theory,” as they had learned a number of lessons:

It is as much trouble to make a bad film as a good one.

Our most sincere film can seem phony.

The films we do with our left hands may become worldwide hits.

A perfectly ordinary movie with energy can turn out to be better cinema than a film with ‘intelligent’ intentions listlessly executed.

The result rarely matches the effort.

Cinematic success is not necessarily the result of good brain work, but of a harmony of existing elements in ourselves that we may not have even been conscious of: a fortunate fusion of subject and our deeper feelings, an accidental coincidence of our own preoccupations at a certain moment of life and the public’s.

Many things.

These, of course, were discoveries that he had yet to make when he set to work on Les Mistons in 1957. It would be an educational experience in many respects.

“I saw it as the first of a series of sketches,” Truffaut said of Les Mistons in 1961. “It was easier at that time, and would be even now, to find money for three or four different short films than to find enough for a feature film. So I planned to do a series of sketches with the common thread of childhood. I had five or six stories. I started with Les Mistons because it was the easiest to shoot.”

Once he had determined on adapting Pons’s story, the next hurdle was finding a means of funding the project. “Rather than pin my hopes on the goodwill of some producer,” he wrote to Pons on April 4, 1957, “I am going to try to film in a few weeks one of the seven or eight stories I have collected and then obtain the means whereby I might go on to film the others.” Around the same time, he sent a letter to Robert Lachenay, his friend since childhood and the model for René in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Antoine and Colette (1962). In it, he informed him of his still-vague plans to shoot a short film somewhere in the countryside that summer, then added, “Unfortunately, I am very broke and don’t dare ask you how well off you are; if, however, by turning your pockets inside out, you were to find ten thousand francs going to waste, they would help me to observe the formalities of my departure, or should I say, my flight!” Thanks to an inheritance from his grandmother, Lachenay was able to contribute financially to Les Mistons, on which he worked as the production manager.

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Of more lasting significance, though, was the help that Truffaut received from Madeleine Morgenstern, whom he would marry in October of that year. Her father, Ignace Morgenstern, was the owner of Cocinor, a major film distribution company in Paris, and at Madeleine’s request, Ignace saw to it that his future son-in-law received the money he needed. Through Marcel Berbert, an associate at Cocinor, he obtained two million francs from a film-financing organization called UFIC.

Ignace Morgenstern also gave the fledgling director a critical piece of advice. “He suggested to me that, if I wanted to keep my hands free, I should create my own production firm,” Truffaut explained in a 1980 interview with Cahiers du cinéma. “So I founded Les Films du Carrosse — the reference is to [Renoir’s 1952 film] The Golden Coach [originally Le Carrosse d’or] — and by chance that little company is still in business twenty years later.” As Robert Ingram notes in François Truffaut: The Complete Films, “The significance of creating a company cannot be understated. Although the fortunes of the company waxed and waned in step with the success or otherwise of the films, it guaranteed Truffaut a crucial and almost unique independence throughout his directorial career.” This move allowed him to produce his own films and, occasionally, those of his friends, such as Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us (1961), Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) and Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969). “In general, it’s friendship that makes me decide to get involved, because the producer’s job doesn’t interest me,” he told Le Nouvel Adam in 1968. (Berbert, for the record, became Carrosse’s manager and would appear in a number of Truffaut’s movies, usually in bit parts.)

When it came time to cast the young lovers — called Yvette and Étienne in the short story — Truffaut turned to Gérard Blain, a promising young actor with whom he had become acquainted the previous year after he praised Blain’s performance in Julien Duvivier’s Deadlier Than the Male (1956). In addition to Blain himself, Truffaut wanted the actor’s wife, Bernadette Lafont, to play the female lead. Blain agreed only reluctantly, as he disliked the idea of the teenage Lafont starting a film career. “She’s delighted to be acting in Les Mistons, but he would prefer that she learn how to cook; for the moment Les Mistons is therefore a sort of exception,” Truffaut wrote to Cahiers colleague Charles Bitsch in May 1957. Casting the five mistons was far less fraught — a simple matter of placing an advertisement in the newspaper Midi-Libre.

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François Truffaut, Bernadette Lafont and Gérard Blain

Truffaut decided to film Les Mistons in Lafont’s hometown of Nîmes, in southern France. Several of his friends, including Lachenay and Claude de Givray — later the co-screenwriter of Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968) and Bed and Board (1970) — served as crew members; cameraman Jean Malige provided the necessary equipment. The shoot began on August 2, 1957, and lasted five weeks. “I’ve been here for 13 days, but we’ve only really managed to shoot 3 days and 4 half-days. Why? The variable weather, laziness, Provençal inertia and all that,” Truffaut wrote to Bitsch. He went on to describe his working methods: “I’m shooting very quickly, sometimes without rehearsing, very often in a single take, occasionally two. This is (for me) the best method, since I can only see things clearly during the rushes and I’m free to start again and redo a scene three days later.”

The remainder of the letter expresses mixed feelings and uncertainty about the project, which he predicted would be “a very uneven film with terrible weaknesses and also some bizarre lucky breaks.” Malige is described as “very nice and very well equipped” but “has no taste, he’s very finicky and works as though he were trying to win a prize”; the boys, “who were chosen too quickly and on appearance alone, are uneven. Three out of five are very good”;  Lafont is “best of all,” Blain unhappy and difficult. “He’s come to realize that Bernadette is completely at home in front of the camera and he makes a scene every day: ‘If you make Chabrol’s film I’ll leave you, etc.’ It has to be said that he finds it awkward filming with her, but so does she.”

In fact, Truffaut soon discovered that he was far more interested in Lafont and the children than in Blain, or even in the story. “When I was shooting Les Mistons I realized that there are certain things I like and others I don’t, that choosing the subject of a film is more important than I had realized, and that one mustn’t commit lightly,” he said. “Every time I had to film something that was really part of the subject, the five children pestering the couple, I was uneasy. Whereas every time I filmed quasi-documentary things with the children, I was happy.” He admitted, too, that he “often sacrificed [Blain] to Bernadette, who is absolutely his opposite: she’s better on the first take without any rehearsal, she’s stimulated by the indications I give her once the camera is running, etc.” Blain, not surprisingly, disliked finding himself overshadowed. “Later, when Gérard saw the rushes, he was a little bitter, because he felt Bernadette had a bigger role than him,” said Claude de Givray. Partway through August, Blain had to leave temporarily in order to do a televised play, which made things easier on both Truffaut and Lafont.

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When the director wrote to Bitsch again at the end of the month, he sounded decidedly less doubtful than in the previous letter: “I’ve only now begun to understand how the kids should have been directed and there’s such a difference between what I was getting from them in the final days and what I got at the beginning of the shoot that I’ve completely got my confidence back.” While he was still less than pleased with Blain and annoyed by criticisms from a visiting Pons (“What? She rides her bike barefoot?”), he declared, “But I really can’t complain about a shoot that was almost scandalously rich in lucky breaks and infinitely more tranquil than [Cahiers critic turned director Pierre] Kast’s.” However, before Les Mistons premiered, he became so anxious that he developed aerophagia — a problem that would continue to plague him throughout his filmmaking career.

The completed short itself would also set a precedent for much of his work to come. Some of its qualities are characteristic of the French New Wave in general, like the outdoor filming and the economical way that Truffaut made use of friends and other acquaintances; de Givray, for example, worked on Les Mistons as both an assistant director and an actor, playing a passerby who gives Gérard a light for his cigarette. In a similar fashion, Truffaut and several other Cahiers contributors had appeared as party guests in Jacques Rivette’s 1956 short Le Coup du Berger. A few years later, in a review of Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us, Truffaut wrote that “the example of Le Coup du Berger made me decide to shoot Les Mistons“; it’s fitting, then, that when Bernadette and Gérard go to the movies (unwittingly accompanied by the five boys), they see Rivette’s short projected on the big screen.

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Truffaut included references to other films as well, a practice common in his own work and that of his fellow cinephiles in the New Wave. At one point, a miston steps on a groundskeeper’s hose and causes the man to spray himself in the face — a nod to Louis Lumière’s 1895 film L’Arroseur Arrosé. In another scene, as the children leave the movie theater, they tear down a poster advertising Jean Delannoy’s Chiens perdus sans collier (1955). This was an act of criticism on Truffaut’s part; according to de Givray, “he felt kids were depicted too conventionally in films,” including Chiens perdus sans collier. It prefigured a similar moment in The 400 Blows in which Antoine and René steal an image from Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika (1953). There, though, it was an act of admiration, as in Day for Night (1973) when the director Ferrand — played by Truffaut himself — dreams about pilfering Citizen Kane (1941) stills in his childhood. The joyous, lighthearted images of Bernadette riding her bicycle, sometimes with Gérard and sometimes alone, also evoke Truffaut’s subsequent work, specifically Jules and Jim (1962) and Two English Girls (1971).

Thematically, too, Les Mistons is very much in keeping with his filmography as a whole. Love is a constant subject. “Half of my films are romantic, the others strive to destroy romance,” he once said. Les Mistons seems to fall somewhere in between the two extremes. The relationship between Bernadette and Gérard is sweetly portrayed, for instance, but the children idealize the young woman out of all proportion. When she gossips to Gérard about another girl’s polka-dot dress, she comes across as perfectly unexceptional; to the boys, though, she’s a mystery and a goddess. “For these grace-filled moments, we’d have been her slaves forever,” the narrator says when one of them returns a stray tennis ball to her. This idealization of females by overly romantic males would recur again and again in Truffaut’s films, including the heavily autobiographical Antoine Doinel series, though it might be made most explicit in Day for Night. Actor Alphonse wonders whether women are magic; co-star Julie tells him, “Of course they’re not magic — or else men are too. Everyone’s magic… or no one is.” The unrequited nature of the mistons’ love for Bernadette is typical of Truffaut’s films as well, taken to extremes in The Story of Adèle H. (1975).

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Children were to become another common thread through Truffaut’s oeuvre. More often than not, even in films focused on adults, there’s at least a small role for a child; other times, they’re the stars, as in The 400 Blows, The Wild Child (1970) and Small Change (1976). His experiences on Les Mistons gave him some valuable insights. “I noticed, in directing these children, that they had no interest in the girl,” he said in 1961. “They weren’t jealous of Gérard Blain, so I had to make them do contrived things, and this annoyed me. I told myself I’d film with children again, but I’d have them do things closer to life.”

Les Mistons was warmly received at screenings beginning in November 1957, and the following February, Truffaut was named best director at the Brussels World Film Festival. A feature was the logical next step. He made a deal with producer Pierre Braunberger to shoot a film called Temps chaud, but that project was delayed when Lafont, who was to appear in it, suffered an injury. Consequently, Truffaut turned back to his stories about childhood. Although he had intended to combine a number of them into an episodic film, he decided instead to expand one — La Fugue d’Antoine — to feature length. Renamed The 400 Blows, it was to become one of the seminal films of the French New Wave and would cement Truffaut’s place in cinema history.

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As for Blain and Lafont, the former went on to star in the first two films directed by Truffaut’s Cahiers colleague Claude Chabrol, Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959), but major fame eluded him. Eventually, he tried his hand behind the camera, although he continued to act throughout his life. In a review of Blain’s 1971 directorial debut Les Amis, Truffaut wrote, “As an actor, Gérard Blain had the reputation of being pigheaded, and the reputation was certainly justified. His trouble was that they make very few adventure films in France, and no Westerns or motorcycle films. If John Garfield had been born in Paris, he would have had the same career and employment problems as our friend Gérard.”

Somewhat ironically, considering Blain’s opposition to Lafont’s becoming an actress, she found great success in her chosen field. Like him, she played a significant role in Le Beau Serge, the first of seven movies that she would make with Chabrol over the course of three decades. (Her marriage to Blain, in contrast, ended around the time shooting wrapped on Le Beau Serge.) Amongst many other credits, she appeared in such landmark films as Rivette’s nearly thirteen-hour epic Out 1 (1971) and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973), both of which co-starred another Truffaut discovery, Jean-Pierre Léaud. Lafont would also reunite with Truffaut for the 1972 comedy Une belle fille comme moi.

After his death in 1984, Cahiers du cinéma published Le Roman de François Truffaut, a collection of tributes and reminiscences from friends, collaborators and admirers. In her contribution, Lafont addressed him directly: “I remember, when we shot Une belle fille, asking you why you had proposed that I take part in Les Mistons. Because, at that time, I was so shy that I was as quiet as a mouse, and what’s more, Gérard proclaimed to anyone who would listen that ‘never, never will my little woman make movies.’ And you replied, ‘Because I felt that you wanted to make movies as much as I did.'”

Sources

De Baecque, Antoine, and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut: A Biography. Trans. Catherine Temerson. New York: Knopf, 1999.

De Givray, Claude. Audio commentary. Les Mistons. Criterion, 2003.

François Truffaut. Dir. Serge Leroy. Cinémathèque de Belgique and Section Cinéma de la R.T.B., 1961.

Ingram, Robert. François Truffaut: The Complete Films. Cologne: Taschen, 2013.

Le Berre, Carole. François Truffaut at Work. Trans. Bill Krohn. London: Phaidon, 2005.

Le Roman de François Truffaut. Paris: Editions de l’Etoile, 1985.

Truffaut by Truffaut. Ed. Dominique Rabourdin. Trans. Robert Erich Wolf. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

Truffaut, François. Correspondence 1945-1984. Trans. Gilbert Adair. New York: Cooper Square, 2000.

Truffaut, François. The Films in My Life. Trans. Leonard Mayhew. Da Capo, 1994.

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This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.

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11 thoughts on “Essence of Truffaut: Les Mistons (1957)

  1. Joshua Wilson

    The comments about the bad films of great filmmakers came at an interesting time for me to ponder, having just thought about CHEYENNE AUTUMN, one of John Ford’s least successful films.
    I haven’t seen most of the films you discuss here, but this is another great essay, full of food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’ve discovered that I can always find something of interest in my favorite directors’ weaker films, even if that just means seeing where they went wrong. That doesn’t mean I consider them good films, but they are worthwhile in their way — more so, to me, than a middling film by someone I don’t know well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had to laugh while reading Truffaut’s Lessons – as if Truffault & Co. were the only ones to discover these things and as if they only apply to filmmaking!

    Your essay is superb and, like the previous commenter said, there’s lots of food for thought – especially the total mental and physical preparations necessary in directing a film. Indeed, you’ve shown that it takes an exceptional person to commit to such a project and see it through, whether audiences & critics receive it well or not.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with this remarkable look at Les Mistons!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, it seems that there was a lot that he and his colleagues didn’t realize when they were brash young critics. 🙂 I didn’t know much behind the scenes information on Les Mistons before I started this post, so I learned a lot of interest too. Thanks for hosting the blogathon!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fascinating topic and entry, a schooling in topics I know nothing about. This is a reminder that I must venture in foreign film a lot more often. I recently purchased the Criterion THE 400 BLOWS, but have yet to see it. Fantastic entry to the blogathon and one I will surely refer back to.

    Aurora

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Day 3: Classic Movie History Project – The People – Once upon a screen…

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