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15 November 2011

L’argent de Poche

Directed by: François Truffaut
                   Starring: Jean-François Stévenin, Chantal Mercier, Geory Desmouceaux, 
Philippe Goldman, Richard Golfier, Sylvie Grezel, 
Claudio and Franck De Luca
François Truffaut’s films have always been a source of wonderment to me. Whether it was to tug at my heartstrings with his debut Le Quatre Cent Coup (Four Hundred Blows) or to disturb me with Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim - a love triangle with a difference), or even make me laugh with L'argent de Poche, his movies have always been less 'cinema' and more free-flowing flights of poetic fancy from which you will take what you will. I haven't explored much of his work (though that is not for a lack of desire) - what I have seen, I like.

L'argent de Poche (Pocket Money) or to give it its English title, Small Change, is, like Truffaut's debut movie Le Quatre Cent Coup, a look at children and childhood. If the debut looked at the dark side of childhood, this movie is about childhood's small joys and frustrations. One caveat - don't watch this film if you are looking for a linear plot line. Set in the small French town of Thiers, L'argent de Poche is a series of episodes in the lives of maybe half a dozen children, and the episodes themselves are unconnected. The children play, they squabble, they go through throes of puppy love, they are anxious about first day at school, they think up outrageous schemes when they are hungry…

The film opens with an adolescent girl who is going to camp in summer - she's sending off a postcard to her cousin on the way. 
Later, the postcard makes a second appearance - on the desk of her little cousin, who is caught by the teacher, Monsieur Richet (Jean-François Stévenin), for daydreaming about the postcard instead of taking down notes. 
However, instead of being pulled up for inattentiveness, the teacher launches into an impromptu lecture on Allychamps (the village from which the postcard is sent) - it is the exact centre of France, he says, and holds up the postcard so the rest of the class can see the monument in the centre of the village. It’s a teaching moment, and the teacher utilises it to the full much to the amusement of the rest of the class. The merriment continues when the teacher’s wife comes to pick up his keys and he kisses her goodbye (he makes it a point to shut the door  before doing so). 
After recess, another class is studying l’avare (The Misery) by Moliere. The teacher, Ms Chantal Petit (Chantal Mercier) has assigned them 15 lines, and most of the class hasn’t bothered to study them. The ones who have, recite it with the speed of an express train, and in a monotone, much to the teacher’s irritation. 

While her class is struggling with Moliere, a young, rather ragged boy is seen outside – a teacher who spots him is nonplussed. It’s already mid-June, term has begun, and the Welfare department is sending him now? He takes him off to the principal.
Julien Le Clou is placed in Ms Petit’s class, the one learning Moliere. His class mates are intrigued by him. He lives in Mureaux, he says, and the boys know that Mureaux is not a residential area. Julien shrugs – Is that so? Well, that’s where he lives. And while the teacher leaves the class to make some sense of the where the new boy fits in, the boy who had been reciting Moliere in a monotone now decides to regale the class with the real way in which to recite the play, much to the teacher’s surprise, though she doesn’t show it.
After school, Julien goes home to a ramshackle shed, and has to use a ladder to get in at the open window on the first floor.
He is seen by a classmate Patrick, who is on his way home after shopping for groceries. The next morning Patrick sees Julien again. And on his way to school, Julien does a curious thing. As the other children play and talk about pocket money, and argue and tease each other during recess, Julien stays aloof. That evening, Patrick runs into Julien again, and he is struck by  the mystery surrounding the boy. 

Monsieur Richet has moved into a new apartment, and his wife meets her new neighbours – le petit Gregory and his mother. When Gregory’s mother loses her wallet and goes looking for it, Gregory is busy playing with his cat. When it falls over the balcony, Gregory goes to the rescue. 
Luckily it ends well for Gregory, not so well for his mother.
The school master has a very logical question – why didn’t anyone try to stop Gregory instead of standing there and staring upwards?

It’s Sunday, and the De Luca boys decide to let their parents sleep in while they make their own breakfast. Sylvie is busy feeding her goldfish. Patrick is washing his neighbour’s antique car, and Julien, who chances upon him is up to mischief.
Sylvie, getting ready to go to the restaurant with her parents runs into an unexpected hitch – her parents will not take her if she insists on taking her little elephant bag along. Sylvie will not leave it behind; and so her parents leave her behind.
However, Sylvie locks herself into her house, and hides the key in the goldfish bowl. She has no intention of going without a meal.
While the adult neighbours are aghast (her father is Chief of Police), her friends in the building are quite enterprising. 

And while Sylvie is enjoying her very elaborate meal, Julien is conspiring to get into a theatre – without paying. 

And so it goes on, little vignettes; we, the audience, are almost voyeurs into their lives as they go about the business of living. The children act as all children do, the adults discuss their professions, their interest, or lack thereof in the children under their care, how to deal with issues as they rise, even whether or not to deal with issues as they rise. And so, the children are not all victims, the teachers are not evil perpetrators; they just are what they are – human. And fallible. And flawed. 

And so Julien steals his classmates’ possessions in order to buy alcohol; Frank and Richard try to sell their textbooks without their parents’ knowledge, and when that fails, give their classmate a haircut so they can earn some money, and the barber ends up in trouble with Golfier’s father who does NOT approve of his haircut.
Patrick, who is almost always starving, is given a meal at a classmate’s house, scoffs down second and third helpings, and expresses his gratitude, thus (much to the lady's amusement):
Patrick and his friend pick up two girls for a double date at the cinema but the evening has an unexpected end: 
Monsieur Richet has a baby and the boys are all agog with conjecture; and in the midst of this all is Julian. Alone, aloof, mysterious. Why does he steal, for instance? Why is he almost always asleep in class? Why does he refuse to allow the annual medical inspection at school? And why does the school have to call in the police? 

L'argent de Poche is less of a movie than a collection of reflections on what it means to be a child - from a child's view. Truffaut does not talk down to the 'little people'. He treats children as completely capable of comprehending more serious problems if explained properly. And that is what Monsieur Richet does in the end when he explains Julien’s situation to his erstwhile classmates. Life may be hard, he says, but it is also wonderful. 

And at the end, comes the summer camp that Martine writes of in the beginning. A camp which Patrick is also attending. Life is indeed wonderful. 
L’argent de Poche is very French in its makeup: there's the reality of the children's lives, there's large dollops of humour, there's sympathy, there's empathy - above all, there's only the children's viewpoint (right until the last scene). The film's strength lies in that the director is not manipulating our emotions, which is always a fear when a movie revolves around children.

Instead, he lets children remain children while he sits back with his camera and lets the stories unfold in front of us - little episodes that are unconnected to each other, except that the same set of people walk in and out of the frame; their connections to each other providing the connections to the episodes concerning them - stories about a harum-scarum bunch of children and the mostly affectionate and concerned adults in their lives.

In some way, it is our story as much as theirs, and so, it calls to our hearts, and to long forgotten memories when life was more innocent, more simple.

Watching Truffaut wield his magic only reinforces my belief that the best films are those that tell simple tales. Simply.


  1. When I first read that bit about this film not having a linear story, I was a bit wary - I am one of those who like a story with a definite beginning and an end. But as I read on, it began to sound like something I'd like to see... I was reminded of R K Narayan's Malgudi Days, which I absolutely loved. :-) Will look out for this. :-)

  2. Madhu, this would be exactly like Malgudi days - the time frame is a couple of weeks before school closes for summer. The kids are fantastic! And it's all about them, so we see them unvarnished.

    I'm not fond myself of films which seemingly go nowhere, but I've come across enough exceptions now to be able to watch them once in a while. I think I would cry off if it became a frequent occurrence. I like my stories to be either plot-driven or character-driven.

    Do watch it and tell me what you think.

  3. Sounds interesting, though I am not a big fan of films where nothing happens. However, you've recommended it, so I'm going to see if I can put it on my Netflix queue.

  4. Watch it; I guarantee you'll be (pleasantly) surprised.

  5. I love French films, even without a linear story line, they manage to convey so much. And the funniest thing is that the most unexpected things happen in them, challenging you to question it. And all the same it makes sense and sound sensible.

  6. Harvey, exactly! And, at least for me, it usually leads to a mental exercise wondering why a particular scene was there; what it conveyed etc., I absolutely love the little touches that may not seem much, but sort of enhance the whole movie-viewing experience.

  7. Ha, finally a film I've seen! And loved. I didn't like Le Quatre Cent Coup (it was too sad for me) and I viewed this with great suspicion when I got my hands on it, but this was hilarious! I loved the scene where the two boys cut their classmate's hair; and little Gregory was a hoot! So was Frank (or is it Richard) telling that off-color joke about a little boy who loses his fruit. The scene you screen-capped (the one in the theater) was also well-done, though I felt so-o-o sorry for Patrick. I'm glad he got a happy ending. Lovely, lovely film. Thank you for reminding me how lovely!

  8. I'm glad you liked the film and my review, Tina. Gregory was cute, wasn't he?

    I know Le Quatre Cent Coup is sad, but that was a beautiful film too.

  9. This is available on Netflix streaming, so I shall see it. Like Harvey, I too like French films; and fortunately there are several available on Netflix streaming. A recent great one I saw was Tell No One (French: Ne le dis à personne).

  10. Samir, I think you will like this. Netflix is my go-to source for foreign films unless I buy them. And they are usually expensive. Some of the films I desperately want for my collection are only available in the Criterion Collection, and they charge exorbitant rates for each DVD. I revcently got my hands on the Blu-Ray version of Il Gatopardo (The Leopard); only, with my son having taken his PS3 away, I have no Blu-Ray player. Waiting to buy one so I can watch it again.

    Thanks for the recommendation - I shall put Ne le dis à personne on my queue. It's available on Netflix, is it not?


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