Director Series: François Truffaut’s Les Mistons (1957)

Chalk

“It was really and truly while filming Les Mistons that I came to realize that there were things I liked and things I didn’t and that the choice of story for a film is more important than one thinks and that you cannot simply jump into things.” — François Truffaut

In 1957, three years after the disappointment of Une visite, François Truffaut ventured behind the camera for the second time. During the interim, in addition to working as Roberto Rossellini’s assistant, he had been extremely busy at his primary job as a critic, particularly at Cahiers du cinéma and Arts-Lettres-Spectacles. “The thought of making films was rather pushed to one side,” he explained when interviewed about his early work in 1974. “But then it came back after Rivette had made Le Coup du berger!” Jacques Rivette’s 1956 short, shot “in Claude Chabrol’s apartment for the price of the film,” according to Truffaut, was picked up by producer Pierre Braunberger, giving significant encouragement to other aspiring directors — Truffaut and Chabrol among them — who would become key figures in the French New Wave.

Braunberger also expressed interest in having Truffaut make a short for him, as he admired his critical writing and was willing to take a chance on fledgling filmmakers. They went so far as to sign two contracts in 1957 — one for a short film called Autour de la tour Eiffel, the other for an episode called Le Mensonge de Bernadette that would have been part of an omnibus film focused on children — but neither project materialized. Around the same time, Truffaut was also toying with a number of other ideas, among them an adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel Jules and Jim (which he would postpone for several years after deciding that it was beyond his powers) and a story about a French criminal and his American girlfriend that would become Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960); however, it was the second abortive Braunberger project that would lead to his first “real” film.

Bike in woods

The concept of an anthology film on childhood appealed to Truffaut, and when the original, multi-director version fell through, he decided to take on the whole thing himself, without Braunberger. “My first thought was to make five stories about children. Because I had a good memory of working with Doniol-Valcroze’s daughter in my little film in 16mm [Une visite] — I enjoyed doing that greatly. I even had a feeling I was getting more out of children than from people my own age, or older.” He had several potential segments in mind, including one inspired by his own youthful truancy, but for his first effort he decided to turn to a literary source: “Les Mistons,” a short story by Maurice Pons from his book Virginales.

Truffaut’s film — also entitled Les Mistons and translated into English as The Mischief Makers or The Brats — concerns five pubescent boys (Alain Baldy, Robert Bulle, Henri Demaegdt, Dimitri Moretti, Daniel Ricaulx) and their infatuation with an acquaintance’s older sister, Bernadette (Bernadette Lafont). Confused by the strange new feelings that she awakens in them, they react with childish malice. “A virginal heartbeat has its own juvenile logic. Too young to love Bernadette, we decided to hate her and sabotage her love affairs,” explains the narrator (Michel François), an unspecified member of the quintet looking back on the episode from the vantage point of adulthood. The boys go about this by continually harassing the young woman and her gym teacher boyfriend, Gérard (Gérard Blain): following them everywhere, writing about them on public walls, causing a commotion when the couple kisses in a movie theater (where Le Coup du berger happens to be playing), sending Bernadette a derisive, risque postcard. At last, an unexpected tragedy puts an abrupt end to their mischief making.

Ampitheater

From the beginning of the film, which depicts Bernadette cycling barefoot through the streets of Nîmes (Bernadette Lafont’s hometown) and the surrounding countryside while jaunty music plays, the atmosphere is one of youth, freshness and freedom. The outdoor setting (save for the movie theater scene) is a major contributor — even if it was a financial necessity at least as much as it was an artistic choice. “The fact I started with Les Mistons was simply because it was very economical to do: it didn’t require much money, it didn’t entail interior scenes,” Truffaut said, noting elsewhere that “everything took place outdoors, in sunlight.” Further cost-saving measures included the employment of his friends as assistants, the use of equipment borrowed from cameraman Jean Malige and a profit-sharing arrangement with the cast. Additionally, in a move that would have lasting importance to his career, Truffaut started his own production company, Les Films du Carrosse (named after Jean Renoir’s 1952 film Le Carrosse d’or, or The Golden Coach). To accomplish this, he borrowed two million francs from a movie-financing organization called UFIC — though unbeknownst to him, he only received the loan thanks to the intervention of his soon-to-be-wife Madeleine Morgenstern, her film distributor father Ignace and Ignace’s business associate Marcel Berbert. According to Berbert, “For a long time, Truffaut believed that he had been loaned this money because of his pretty face! Similarly, we were held financially liable when he brought his film in to be developed. It was only years later that François realized the truth.” Even with this assistance, Truffaut wrote to Maurice Pons in October of 1957 that “the shoot [which lasted five weeks, from early August to early September] had to be wrapped up as economically as possible; I am deeply in debt.”

The ceaseless movement of the bicycle toward the camera in these opening shots is another important element, literally setting Les Mistons in motion.”From the moment you focus on something that is going forward, a car, a locomotive, a bike, you know that you are in the movement of the film,” Truffaut said. Images of moving bicycles, in particular, struck him as “a perfect harmony between cinema and a means of locomotion,” and he would utilize them again, perhaps most memorably in Jules and Jim (1962). Besides that, he viewed Lafont herself as a dynamic force. “When I think of Bernadette Lafont, French actress, I see a symbol in motion, the symbol of vitality and therefore of life,” he would say of her nearly three decades later, in 1984.

Les Mistons was Lafont’s film debut. Just eighteen years old at the time of the shoot, she was the real-life wife of co-star Gérard Blain, a promising actor whose performance Truffaut had praised in his review of Julien Duvivier’s Voici le temps des assassains (1956), or Deadlier Than the Male. The two men became acquainted as a result, and after Truffaut met Lafont through Blain, he offered the couple the roles of the two lovers in Les Mistons. Accordingly, he changed the characters’ names, which were Yvette and Étienne in the source material, to those of the actors. (Writing to novice director Bernard Dubois in 1974, he would advise him against this practice, which he called “one of the less appealing aspects of New Wave folklore.” In a footnote, he added that “oddly enough, actors are always below par, less involved somehow, when their characters have the same name as they have.”) Blain was opposed to the idea of Lafont starting a film career — “Never, never will my little wife make a movie,” she later recalled him saying “to whomever wanted to hear it” — and reportedly became jealous during the shoot as Truffaut and the film itself became increasingly focused on Lafont and the children, to Blain’s detriment.

While the Lafont-Blain marriage would (perhaps not surprisingly) end in divorce within a few years, here, on screen, they make an appealing love-struck pair. Compared to the mistons, Bernadette and Gérard seem quite grown up, but there’s a decidedly vernal quality, a sweetness, even an innocence to their romance — witness the two of them chasing each other around in the woods or holding hands while cycling. It’s interesting to see that even at the age of twenty-five, in this youth-centric film, Truffaut avoids anything overtly trendy or of the moment, any clear markers of contemporary youth culture, giving it a certain timelessness. In 1971, talking about Stolen Kisses (1968) in his introduction to the published Antoine Doinel screenplays, he wrote, “As for myself, I am a nostalgic; I am not tuned in on what is modern, it is in the past that I find my inspiration; I proceed by personal sensations, which is why all my pictures, and especially Stolen Kisses, are filled with souvenirs and tend to remind the audience that sees them of its own youth.”

Holding Hands

Romantic though this may sound, Les Mistons avoids painting a rosy, sentimental picture of pubescence. It’s a confusing, challenging time for the five mischief makers. In many ways — most ways, maybe — they’re still children, even if they share a cigarette while watching Bernadette and Gérard play tennis. (To fill these roles, Truffaut advertised in a local newspaper for boys between the ages of eleven and fourteen.) Exulting in the freedom of summer vacation, they spend their days running around the town and its environs, making noise, joking around, playing games — playing at death, at one point, massacring one another with invisible machine guns in a Roman amphitheater. Truffaut exhibits his own youthful playfulness here, reversing the film so that one miston is “resurrected.” In the following scene, he throws in another whimsical, if gratuitous, touch: an homage to the 1895 Lumière comedy L’arroseur arrosé, in which a mischievous boy tricks a gardener into spraying himself in the face with a hose.

Because the boys are highly immature — in the grand scheme of things, though not necessarily for their age — the adult sensations that Bernadette and her flying skirts educe are all the more unsettling to them. “Bernadette led us to discover many of our darkly hidden dreams,” says the narrator. “She awoke in us the springs of luminous sensuality.” (Again, the outdoor setting is apropos, mixing nature with these natural urges.) Their attraction to her is primarily physical, sexual, to be sure, yet it also contains something beyond that, something worshipful. “For these grace-filled moments we’d have been her slaves forever,” the narrator says of the times when the boys would return stray tennis balls to her; the accompanying image, with Bernadette in white, suggests a goddess standing before a mere mortal. The words of devotion, meanwhile, evoke (however vaguely) a memorable bit of narration in Jules and Jim, when the title characters become enamored with a sculpture: “Had they ever met such a smile? Never. And if they ever met it? They’d follow it.” The mistons are the first naive (or obtuse) Truffaut males to idealize a woman, failing to see the real person behind the romantic dream, but they won’t be the last. Amusingly, in this dialogue-light film, Bernadette’s first significant line is so prosaic, even petty — “Guess who I saw in a polka-dot dress,” she says to Gérard — that it immediately undercuts the idea that she’s some divine, otherworldly being.

Tennis Ball

Just as the boys don’t understand their strange new attraction to Bernadette, they don’t understand that the love between Bernadette and Gérard is a serious thing. Their lack of understanding prevents them from being sympathetic to the couple, and their lack of sympathy, combined with their jealousy, drives them to be obnoxious and, at times, downright cruel. All of their attempts to break up the romance are very childish, fittingly — not only the whooping and whistling in the movie theater or the writing in chalk on the walls around town, but even the moment when they interrupt Bernadette and Gérard during an intimate moment in the woods. “We weren’t there to stare but to humiliate them publicly,” the narrator notes. (An earlier scene also subverts the sort of voyeurism that might be expected: when Bernadette goes for a swim, the boys gather around her bicycle — one of them actually presses his face to the seat, in slow motion — rather than spying on her.) They take pride in their obnoxiousness, signing the risque postcard “Les Mistons” after Gérard uses the word against them in anger. Essentially, it’s all another game to them — and none of their efforts at sabotage make any real difference in the long run.

Still, the tragic end of the love affair and the fact that the story is being related by a man looking back on his childhood add poignancy to what might otherwise be a lighthearted tale. Truffaut would use narration quite a few times in his subsequent films. “Commentary, for me, is a form of confiding — it is like speaking in someone’s ear,” he said, and the erstwhile mischief maker’s words have something of that air, almost as if he hasn’t quite worked out his thoughts and feelings about this episode and needs to share them with someone. “Now I think back on those days with more pity than shame, but a bitter memory has always stayed with me of our beautiful friend vanished from our childhood skies, just as she’d vanish around the corner on her bicycle with her skirt flying,” he concludes wistfully.

Wall

In directing this film about a sometimes painful learning experience, Truffaut learned a number of lessons of his own. “I realized, for example, that the story in itself did not please me, that there was no connection between the lives of those five children and the pair of lovers,” he said when interviewed on Cinéastes de notre temps in 1965. “Every time that I had to shoot things that were truly connected with the subject, like the pestering pranks played on the pair by the five children, I was ill at ease. Whereas every time I did things with the children that were almost documentary, I was happy and everything went well.” He was starting to figure out who he was as a filmmaker, what kinds of movies he wanted to create, and even if Les Mistons wasn’t entirely to his satisfaction, its similarities to his later work prove that he managed to put a distinctly personal stamp on it anyway.

In the aforementioned letter to Pons from October 1957,  Truffaut asked the author to write a few new sentences that could be added to the narration over a series of images. After describing them briefly and offering some words or ideas to incorporate into the text, he explained “that these sentences, written by you in the abstract, will fit better than any which the images might suggest to you; 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.”

Sources

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

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. The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. Trans. Helen G. Scott. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.

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.

Truffaut on Cinema. Ed. Anne Gillain. Trans. Alistair Fox. Bloomington: Indiana University, 2017.

Director Series: François Truffaut
Une visite (1954)Les Mistons (1957) | Une histoire d’eau (1958) | The 400 Blows (1959) | Shoot the Piano Player (1960) | Jules and Jim (1962) | The Soft Skin (1964) | Fahrenheit 451 (1966) | The Bride Wore Black (1968) | Stolen Kisses (1968) | Mississippi Mermaid (1969) | The Wild Child (1970) | Bed and Board (1970) | Two English Girls (1971) | A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972) | Day for Night (1973) | The Story of Adèle H. (1975) | Small Change (1976) | The Man Who Loved Women (1977) | The Green Room (1978)| Love on the Run (1979) | The Last Metro (1980) | The Woman Next Door (1981) | Confidentially Yours (1983)

2 thoughts on “Director Series: François Truffaut’s Les Mistons (1957)

  1. I admire filmmakers who have the foresight to reject current references in their films. Like you said, it’s fascinating that a film centred on youth could eschew the trends du jour. I also like what Truffaut said about commentary being a form of confiding – I never thought about it that way before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you almost expect, say, a rock and roll or jazz-related scene in a film about young people from this time period (or at least you would in an American film). I thought the thing about the commentary was interesting too. He went on to say, “Cinema and theater draw a lot of people together, but in theater, one is addressing everyone, whereas in cinema, one is speaking to each individual person.”

      Liked by 1 person

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