François Truffaut

A Tale of Dysfunctional Infatuation

  There’s a scene in the first film of celebrated French director François Truffaut (1932-1984) in which a 12-year-old boy plays a trick on a gardener by cutting off the water in his hose and then releasing it to dowse the man when he investigates by peering into the nozzle. The episode, of course, is a replay of the famous Lumière gag in L’Arroseur arrosé (see Chapter 2.2); perhaps to signal his inspiration in the history of his chosen medium, Truffaut underscores the scene by embellishing it with a little slow motion. Entitled Les Mistons (which can be roughly translated as The Mischief Makers or The Brats), Truffaut’s 17-minute short (1957) places itself squarely in the well-worn genre of the “bad boy” film.

The story revolves around five boys—adolescents growing up in the town of Nîmes in southern France—and much like the Edison short Love in a Hammock (1901), whose compass we discussed in Chapter 7.1, it’s also about the sexual curiosity and voyeuristic adventures of its mischievous protagonists. Truffaut’s mistons become fascinated by the beautiful Bernadette, the older sister of one of the group, their curiosity piqued by the intractable otherness of an adult female and the vague sexual sensations that she stirs up—sensations which are more frustrating than liberating to adolescents who don’t fully understand them and can’t express them in any kind of functional relationship with the creature who’s spurred them. So they settle for a dysfunctional relationship: “A virginal heart,” reports the narrator (who speaks for one of the boys), “obeys a childish logic. Too young to love Bernadette, we decided to hate her.”

See the the moving picture


           François Truffaut, Les Mistons /

        The Mischief Makers, France, 1957

Thus begins a concerted juvenile campaign of spying on and otherwise harassing Bernadette and her lover, a local gym teacher. The mistons hide in the bushes to gaze at her while she swims in the river (sneaking out long enough for one of them to sniff the seat of her bicycle [Figure R7.8/Shot 1]). They stalk the couple through the city and follow them to the ruins of the local Roman amphitheater, where they watch them kiss, trying to disrupt the romantic interlude by staging a raucous shootout in imitation of the gangsters in American movies.

Indeed, the shots in Figure R7.8/Shot 2 and Figure R7.8/Shot 3, both of which come from the scene at the amphitheater, suggest that the boys, especially in their roles as voyeurs, are much like spectators watching a story unfold on a movie screen. Truffaut takes both shots as if his camera were shooting from the back of a darkened theater, over the shoulders of an audience silhouetted against the image illuminated on the screen: in Figure R7.8/Shot 2, the scene on the screen gives us two lovers in medium long shot, while the scene in Figure R7.8/Shot 3 presents them in extreme long shot. Later, the boys follow the couple to an actual movie theater, where they watch a film called Le Coup de berger (Fool’s Mate, 1956), a short about the intertwining romantic games of four young people. While the mistons watch them in the dark, the lovers recite the dialogue and repeat the gestures of the characters in the movie, with Truffaut contriving at one point to make it impossible to determine whether we’re hearing the voices of his characters or of the characters on the screen.

See an excerpt


      Roger Vadim, Et Dieu créa la femme /

    And God Created Woman, France, 1956

God Created Woman

  The mistons (and Truffaut’s camera) are constantly gazing at Bernadette through gates, balustrades, and other structures, as if concealment is necessary to experience the full pleasure of looking at her, and by keeping both his camera and his point-of-view characters at a formal distance, Truffaut denies both himself and his audience any access to the woman’s inner life, objectifying her by transforming her into a series of images on the screen. Thus when the boys follow the couple to a tennis court, they watch from behind a fence, and Truffaut gives us Bernadette only as fragmented images of a female body—a thigh, a breast[1]—such as only the cinema, with its capacity simultaneously to change and shift its perspective on images, can give us.

The objectification and the refusal to explore “character psychology” are clearly functions of Truffaut’s stylistic strategy. In one scene, the mistons pass before a poster displaying the voluptuous figure of Brigitte Bardot in the film Et Dieu créa la femme (And God Created Woman, 1956), which had been released only a few months earlier and which had already become a succès de scandale thanks to director Roger Vadim’s determination to display as much of Bardot as possible (Figure R7.9 [2]). Contemplating the prospect of watching an underdressed Bardot make love under a Mediterranean sun, the mistons can only express their frustration at being too young to get into the theater.[3] The association between Bernadette and Brigitte is amply evident: each embodies the female as an object of both of otherness and desire.

See the moving picture


         Bernadette Lafonte as Bernadette

                  and one of les mistons

Les Mistons, therefore, is a film about looking; more specifically, it’s about the ways we’ve learned to look—and to respond to what we’re looking at—through the medium of the cinema. Bernadette is not “real” because Truffaut is interested in the art of casting her on the screen as an image in the collective unconscious of a group of adolescents. On this level, his film is about the effect of that image in prompting inchoate and awkward sensations and in disturbing a state of innocence, and he suggests that it’s the basic function of the cinema to move us to recover sensations that mystify and excite us—or, more precisely, to devise fictions that prompt us to recover them. Because the cinema is the art of manipulating images on a screen, exploring the interior lives of fictional characters who’ve been fabricated to represent “real” people is not one of its strengths (the novel is much better at it): the function of the cinema is to prompt sensations and certain moods of self-reflection in spectators watching images on a screen. Or to put it another way: God creates real women, but the cinema creates only functionally iconic (and aesthetically exciting) figures like Brigitte Bardot. (The fact that Bernadette is played by an actress named Bernadette Lafont is just another way of reminding us that we’re too apt to confuse the two manifestations of the feminine.)


       Jean Delannoy, ca. 1946

Le Cinéma de Papa

  To be sure, Truffaut’s “psychology” in Les Mistons is more metaphorical than analytical, and it is, like most of the ideas animating this 17-minute exercise, a metaphor in the service of a polemic. To understand the terms of the polemic, we need a little background. The poster for Et Dieu créa la femme isn’t the only movie poster to which the mistons react in a significant way. They also come upon a poster for a film entitled Chiens perdus san collier (The Little Rebels), a drama about a boy who’s mistreated by a rural foster family. Truffaut had reviewed the movie when it came out in 1955. In particular, he didn’t like the way the director, veteran French filmmaker Jean Delannoy (1908-2008), handled the children in his cast, and he disdained in general the filmmaking sensibilities of Delannoy and his scriptwriters: the film, he charged, “was written to order . . . by two disillusioned and cynical scriptwriters—Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, who have written ‘touching’ dialogue—and is set to images by a man insufficiently intelligent to be cynical, too crafty to be sincere, too pretentious and solemn to be simple, Jean Delannoy.”[4] This poster the mistons, as if spurred by some precocious critical insight into the cinematic mistreatment of their peer group, rip from the wall (Figure R7.8/Shot 4]).

The moment may be, as at least one commentator has characterized it, “a gratuitous in-joke,”[5] but it’s impossible not to endow it with a little metaphorical significance. As a film critic in the mid-1950s, Truffaut had been one of the most fervent critics of le cinéma de papa[6]—the French mainstream cinema and what one historian describes as “the progressively more regulated, monitored, state-subsidized, unionized, and professionalized industry” that had emerged in the immediate post-World War II era.[7] Delannoy’s academic style and preference for script-dominated subjects made him a favorite target for Truffaut and the other young critics who eventually rode the crest of an upheaval in production practices, audience attitudes, and artistic fashions that’s now known as the French Nouvelle Vague, or “New Wave.” Given his chance to direct Les Mistons, Truffaut took another shot at Delannoy—“I’ve seen Chiens perdus sans collier three times so as to learn exactly what not to do”[8]—and contrived the scene with the poster as a metaphor for the rebellion of a young generation of cinéastes against the cinema of their fathers. (Delannoy responded by pointing out that Les Mistons was financed by Truffaut’s fiancée and her wealthy father.[9])

Among other things, then, Truffaut’s mistons act out the rebellious fantasies of the critics and would-be directors of the New Wave, and their collective personality—they’re boisterous, destructive, and even cruel—suggests that of the vehement young Truffaut himself, whom another veteran of le cinéma de papa once called “the young hoodlum of journalism.”[10] At the same time, the children are outsiders looking in and jealous of the adults’ freedom to make love, much as the young men of the nouvelle vague still envied their elders’ prerogative in making films.[11] Perhaps most importantly, they also reflect Truffaut’s conviction that survival is harder for children than for adults and that children thus take things more seriously than we think: “Tossed about between their need for protection and their need for independence,” Truffaut once told an interviewer, “children often have to endure adult caprices, and they have to defend themselves against them, to harden themselves. I stress the distinction: not to grow hard, but hard enough to stand it.”[12]

This resilience is no doubt the least metaphorical dimension of the psychology with which Truffaut invests his mistons, but we can’t ignore the fact that the dramatic behavior in which the trait insistently manifests itself is harassment and voyeurism: the children in Les Mistons, unlike the children in more mature Truffaut films like Les 400 coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and L’Argent de poche (Pocket Change, 1976), regulate the film’s point of view because their curiosity about sex plausibly motivates its determination to dwell on images of a beautiful young woman and her lover.


 Pierre Bost (left) and Jean Aurenche, ca. 1953

A Cinema That Aspires to “Psychological Realism”

  Dramatically, the metaphorical trumps the analytical, largely because Truffaut’s primary concerns in the movie are the same concerns that inspired him as a film critic. In a now-famous article published in 1954, Truffaut identified the most serious failure of le cinéma de papa as its reliance on “psychological realism.” By the mid-1950s, argued Truffaut, the penchant in the French cinema for adapting literary works had resulted not only in a dependence on novelistic approaches to narrative material, but in the practice of adding “equivalent scenes” to make stories derived from literature more dramatically viable. These so-called “equivalences,” however, always rested on the social prejudices of intellectual screenwriters like Jean Aurenche (1903-1992) and Pierre Bost (1901-1975), in whose hands they’d already degenerated into moribund formulas for populating movies with common people who were supposedly drawn from real life but who invariably turned out to be caricatures of real people. “This school which aspires to realism,” wrote Truffaut, “destroys it at the moment of finally grabbing it, so careful is the school to lock these beings in a closed world, barricaded by formulas, plays on words, maxims, instead of letting us see them for ourselves, with our own eyes.”[13]

To make matters worse, Truffaut argued, there were “scarcely more than seven or eight scenarists working regularly for the French cinema,” all of whom shared the same attitudes toward “real” characters and worked in the same school of “psychological realism.” Moreover, they all had the same concept of the relationship between the written script and its realization on film: “When they hand in their scenario, the film is done; the metteur-en-scène, in their eyes, is the gentleman who adds the pictures to it.”[14] The French cinema was mired in the precepts of psychological realism because directors like Delannoy put up no resistance, devoting their energies to “scholarly framing, complicated lighting effects, [and] ‘polished’ photography.”[15]

Forgetting Cinema in Order to “Copy Life”

  Elsewhere, Truffaut complained that “in most French movies, the action takes place inside, and the outside shots, which are very rare, are used only to link together the interior setups, because French . . . filmmakers are afraid of nature.”[16] He applauded Vadim’s decision to shoot Et Dieu créa la femme on the resort beaches of Saint-Tropez and to depict “a young married couple behaving like a young married couple . . ., patting each other, playing like children . . ., and making love during the day,” instead of stock characters behaving according to the preconceived formulas of psychological realism.


 Roger Vadim (left) and François Truffaut, 1961

Vadim, declared Truffaut, “wanted to forget cinema in order to ‘copy life,’”[17] and Truffaut clearly approached Les Mistons with a similar principle in mind—namely, the notion that by shooting on location, a filmmaker was more likely to produce images of a real world in which to portray real people. We first see Bernadette bicycling along sun-dappled tree-lined streets, her skirt billowing as she passes through evanescent fields of sunlight and shadow, sunlight and shadow. The chiaroscuro imagery may or may not be intended to evoke “the vicissitudes of life,”[18] but, composed of rhythmic cuts on fluid tracking shots, it’s certainly an evocation of the cinema as an illusion of life in images passing alternately from bursts of illumination to intervals of darkness. “She always rode with skirt flowing and no petticoat,” says the narrator, advising us from the very start of the film that the function of its heroine is to be looked at as an image on a screen. Again, the metaphorical trumps the analytical: if Truffaut has taken his camera into the environs of Nîmes in order to “forget cinema and ‘copy life,’” it’s a means to reject the cinema of psychological realism and to reassert the province of the cinema as the casting of illusory but provocative images on a screen.

[1] See Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram, François Truffaut (Manchester and New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 1998), p. 3.

[2] For Figure R7.9: “B.B. Is the Victim of a Plot,” trans. Sonja Kropp, in The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut, ed. Wheeler Winston Dixon (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), p. 75. See also Roy Armes, French Cinema since 1946. Volume Two: The Personal Style (London: Tantivy Press, 1976), pp. 144-50.

[3] See François Truffaut, “Roger Vadim: Et Dieu Créa la Femme,” in The Films in My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), pp. 311-12. On Bardot, Vadim, Et Dieu créa la femme, and the French New Wave, see Richard Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema (2002; rpt. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2007), pp. 73-85; Richard Ivan Jobs, Riding the New Wave: Youth and the Rejuvenation of France after the Second World War (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 197-206. The classic examination of Bardot as an icon of eroticism is by the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir: Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome (1960; rpt. London: New English Library, 1962). See also Denise Warren, “Beauvoir on Bardot: The Ambiguity Syndrome,” Dalhousie French Studies 13 (Fall-Winter 1987), pp. 39-50. For further discussion of Bardot as actress and icon, see Kelly Conway, “Brigitte Bardot: From International Star to Fashion Icon,” in New Constellations: Movie Stars of the 1960s, ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2012), Ch. 9; Tino Balio, The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1973 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2010), pp. 114-17.

[4] Quoted by Don Allen, Finally Truffaut (New York: Beaufort Books, 1985), p. 13. For an overview of the career of Delannoy, see Richard Chatten, “Jean Delannoy: Film Director before the New Wave,” The Independent (June 21, 2008), at (accessed July 3, 2016).

[5] Allen, Finally Truffaut, p. 22.

[6] See Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 280-83; Holmes and Ingram, François Truffaut, pp. 144-45.

[7] Colin Crisp, The Classic French Cinema, 1930-1960 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), p. 416.

[8] Quoted in “Delannoy, Jean,” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), p. 202. For a detailed overview of Truffaut’s contribution to the polemics of the Nouvelle Vague and the politique des auteurs, see John Hess,“La Politique des auteurs, 2: Truffaut’s Manifesto,” Jump Cut, no 2 (1974), pp. 20-22, at (accessed July 3, 2016).

[9] Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Truffaut, trans. Catherine Temerson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1999), p. 117.

[10] Quoted by James Monaco, The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), p. 13.

[11] See Monaco, The New Wave, p. 17.

[12] “Introduction,” Small Change: A Film Novel, trans. Anselm Hollo (New York: Grove Press, 1976), p. 11.

[13] “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” trans. in Cahiers du cinéma in English, in Movies and Methods: An Anthology, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), p. 232. On the collaboration of Aurenche and Bost, see Crisp, The Classic French Cinema, pp. 303-04.

[14] “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” pp. 232, 233.

[15] “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” p. 230.

[16] “B.B. Is the Victim of a Plot,” p. 72.

[17] “B.B. Is the Victim of a Plot,” p. 73.

[18] Holmes and Ingram, François Truffaut, p. 7.

Back to top

Back to CHAPTER 7/Part 1