While perhaps not as well known or as discussed as his other great works, L'Argent de poche (Small Change) is one of the finest films Francois Truffaut left us. A heartfelt and moving masterpiece from 1976, Small Change is a real miracle of a film and it has long deserved to be held in the same esteem as legendary works like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim and Day for Night.
The idea for Small Change had been in Truffaut’s head since the mid-fifties when he shot his early short film The Mischief Makers. He would write in his marvelous novelization of Small Change that he originally planned it as a, “collection of short stories.” Thankfully that led to a screenplay but it took years for him to get it to the screen. The unforgettable moments that would finally make up Small Change had indeed been occupying Truffaut for two decades but he knew the shoot would be a difficult one (due to the majority of the cast being made up by children) and he had to find a way to script what could be just a purely episodic film into a narrative whole.
For those who haven’t seen it, Small Change focuses on, in Truffaut’s words, a group of children and “the events in Theirs during the last month of the school year.” He would go onto write that the film, “presents about ten youngsters, boys and girls, whose adventures illustrated-from the first feeding bottle to the first loving kiss-the different stages of passage from early childhood to adolescence.” Truffaut shot his funny and touching film almost exclusively with non-professional actors and the project feels perhaps more grounded and gritty than any of his other films. Truffaut would call the experience of shooting the film, “exhausting”, but it would turn out to be one of his biggest worldwide hits.
Truffaut knew that Small Change was going to be one of the trickiest films he had ever made as he began prepping shortly after he wrapped shooting on The Story of Adele H. Beyond the typical concern of just making a quality film, Truffaut would recall in 1979 that he felt, “the filmmaker’s responsibility is greater when he is filming children, because the public cannot keep itself from superimposing a symbolic meaning on everything a child does”. He would go onto state that he was aware of the fact that, “when we look at a particular child doing something on the screen, we are immediately projected back to our own childhood, and what that child is doing seems to us what childhood as a whole does”. Truffaut was more than aware that with Small Change he would be making a movie ultimately for adults but, at the same time, he wanted to make a genuine film about childhood or, in his own words, he was aware that, “children should be filmed only because you love them.”
After what seemed like an endless amount of preparation and auditioning, the filming of Small Change began and took well over two months in the summer of 1975. Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana would note in their excellent biography of Truffaut that his original cut was over three hours long and the exhausting shooting, as well as looming editing, would eventually cause his doctor to, “prescribe him a month of complete rest.”
Dedicating the film to Victor Hugo, Charles Trenet and Ernst Lubitsch, a still fatigued Truffaut nervously unleashed Small Change to theaters 1976 unsure about the film he had made. His doubts were soon displaced with joy though when the film became immediately embraced by huge crowds and mostly great critical plaudits. Pauline Kael, who had been so blown away by The Story of Adele H. had serious reservations before seeing Small Change but admitted that the film was, “a rarity-a poetic comedy that’s really funny.” And, while it didn’t perhaps has never gained the recognition granted to The 400 Blows, Small Change equaled the box-office success of that earlier masterwork in France, England and The United States.
I first saw Small Change in the mid-nineties via a VHS copy I rented at a local movie shop in Lexington, KY and it immediately became one of my favorite Truffaut films. The film provokes reaction and I can’t recall a work that caused me to both laugh and cry in equal measure quite as much a Small Change. I also can’t think of another film that deals with the jubilation and turmoil that go hand in hand with childhood like Truffaut’s film does. He really captured some striking universal truths with this film and it remains one of the most accurate, authentic and moving narrative works I have ever seen.