Already by the mid-1950s a successful film critic, Francois Truffaut nurtured ambitions to direct films himself. His first effort Une visite, made in 1954, was, by his own admission, little more than a training exercise. His first real film came about as a result of meeting at the Venice Film Festival in 1956, Madeleine Morgenstern, the daughter of Ignace Morgenstern, managing director of one of France’s largest film distribution companies. Truffaut had a short story entitled Les Mistons (The Brats) by Maurice Pons that he wanted to adapt into a film and Madeleine asked her father to help in funding the project. He agreed on the condition that Truffaut set up a company with his colleague Marcel Berbert to manage the production of the film. The company, ‘Films du Carrosse’, would become crucially important to Truffaut, ensuring an almost unique independence throughout his career.
Filming took place on location in the town of Nimes during August 1957 with a small crew and a modest budget. Up-and-coming actor Gérard Blain and his young wife, Bernadette Lafont, who had never acted before, were cast as the two young lovers. The five mischief-makers of the title were discovered through a newspaper advertisement. Assistance and moral support were provided by two of Truffaut’s closest friends, Robert Lachenay and Claude de Givray. During filming, Truffaut decided to give Bernadette Lafont’s role greater importance and to focus more on the children. This caused a rift with Blain who was jealous of the attention Truffaut was paying to his wife. After he left the set the atmosphere improved, and Truffaut began to acquire greater confidence. Bernadette Lafont recalled later that they nicknamed their director “the little corporal”, because in profile “he resembled Napoléon at the bridge of Arcole, inspired, impassioned and consumed with ambition.”
Les Mistons was first shown on 17 November in Paris and received a positive response from an audience made up mostly of Truffaut’s friends. Early the following year the film won the best director prize for short film at the Brussels Festival of World Cinema. With hindsight what’s so remarkable about Les Mistons is how completely it encapsulates Truffaut’s subsequent oeuvre. Most of his thematic and stylistic preoccupations are already present, distilled and condensed into the film’s 23 minute duration. It represented a breakthrough, not just for Truffaut but also for the whole group of young critics writing for Cahiers du cinema who had been calling for a revolution in cinema in France. When the kids are shown in the film tearing down a poster of ‘tradition de qualité’ director Jean Delannoy’s Chiens perdus sans collier they’re standing in for Truffaut and his New Wave allies (Chabrol, Godard, and others) tearing down the past and starting afresh.
But Truffaut’s desire to overthrow the mainstream French film industry of the time did not amount to a wholesale rejection of what had come before. Les Mistons is full of echoes of France’s cinematic past and, in its realistic yet lyrical style, harks back to the work of Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir, pioneers who had approached filmmaking as an art rather than a commercial enterprise. At the same time, Truffaut establishes himself as a filmmaker with a mature vision all his own. His skillful direction of actors, use of real locations, voice-over narration, music, and his economical approach to storytelling reveal a director who already has a firm grasp of film language. Several central themes that would recur frequently in Truffaut’s films – adult behaviour as seen through the eyes of children, women as mysterious objects of desire, the poetry of everyday life, and the unexpected appearance of death – are introduced for the first time.
Clearly thrilled to be behind the camera calling the shots, Truffaut experiments with slow motion, extended travelling shots, reverse motion and other camera tricks. Establishing the Nouvelle Vague’s reflexive allusion to cinematic history, there are numerous references to favourite directors, including a recreation of Lumière’s famous L’Arroseur arose (The Waterer Watered, 1895), in which a young boy steps on a gardener’s hose, the gardener looks at the end of the hose, and then the boy lifts his foot, spraying the gardener. However, this time Truffaut has the gardener spraying the boy in revenge! Similarly, a dolly shot along the line of boys seated on the ground behind a fence, watching Bernadette play tennis, recalls a scene in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1946) when another group of boys witness the shocking scene of the priest executed in a field.
Whether one ‘gets’ all the references or not, Les Mistons is an accessible and rewarding film, suffused with nostalgia and romantic longing. Bernadette’s breezy bicycle rides along sun-dappled lanes are charming and exhilarating and would be used again in Jules et Jim (1961), while the boy’s imitation gunfight looks forward to the gangster homages of Tirez sur le pianiste (1960). Most importantly, Truffaut learned valuable lessons that would prove crucial when making Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows). As he later revealed in an interview: “it was really and truly while filming Les Mistons that I came to realize...that the choice of story for a film is more important than one thinks and that you cannot simply jump into things. I realized, for example, that...there was no connection between the lives of those five children and the pair of lovers. Every time 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. We were making a kind of investigation into truth, if you will, using the children, because they have a terrific feeling for realism, and because that interested me. It was thanks to the mistakes of Les Mistons that I came to realize, for The 400 Blows , that this time I had to stick close to childhood and, above all, very close to what is documentary, working with the minimum of fiction." Thus Les Mistons gave, not just the financiers, but Truffaut himself, the confidence necessary when it came to making his debut feature two years later.