Francois Truffaut’s “Small Change,” in my humble opinion, is the best French movie I have ever seen. It is also the best film from the group of “new wave” directors of the ’60s, including Truffaut and fellow movie critic turned filmmaker, Jean Luc Goddard. The two men’s names cannot be said without mentioning the other, and I believe this is unfair. For one, Truffaut is obviously the superior filmmaker of the two. Goddard, meanwhile, has forsaken filmmaking competence for flash, having mistaken it for substance long ago. Goddard remains to this day a living symbol of French new wave filmmaking, and by all accounts, is not very liked by his fellow filmmakers. Truffaut, on the other hand, was very much liked and respected, and this is probably because the man himself was an affable person, not at all like the narcissistic loudmouth that is his fellow filmmaker Goddard.
“Small Change” remains my favorite movie from the era of the auteur. For those who don’t know, the “auteur theory” was put forward by Goddard himself — re: an auteur is a man who authors his film, meaning that the director has such a stamp on his work that all contributors to the project falls off to the wayside, with the director standing as the only filmmaker. This theory is not always true, since a film takes an army of technicians to make it work. Good film, bad film — it doesn’t matter, they all need an army to make it a reality. But for my money, Truffaut defines the auteur model more than anyone. Take a look at 5 of Spielberg’s films, and if you didn’t know who directed them, you wouldn’t think the same person directed all of them. And that is the essence of the auteur theory — a film is so distinctive that it can be identified immediately with a particular director.
Getting back to the movie at hand…
“Small Change” is not a single story, but a series of stories from a small town in France. It is shot in a naturalistic style, with naturalistic acting. Truffaut was famous for taking non-actors and making them actors. I guess you could call him the original actor’s director. The man had a way of coaxing a good performance out of his child actors that is truly astounding.
For a moment, while watching “Small Change,” one might get the impression that there really is nothing going on, when the truth is that so much is going on it’s hard to keep up. And yet, with very extraordinary ease, Truffaut manages to keep all the various storylines coherent. The genius of Truffaut is that, in those films where he is the auteur, he takes a seemingly simple storyline and turns it into a complex, universal and very human story.
What is “Small Change” really about? Well, it’s hard to explain, but I guess you could call it a vignette. It’s multiple stories, about multiple people, and their interaction inside this small town. The child actors are superb, as are the adults. There are no stereotypical characters, no forced emotions, and some truly shocking moments that turns out to be exhilarating ones.
I cannot recommend “Small Change” highly enough. This is the movie that made me look at film in a whole new light.
Francois Truffaut (director) / Suzanne Schiffman, Francois Truffaut (screenplay)