“Les Mistons” - Francois Truffaut (1957)

Francois Truffaut’s first real film was the seventeen-minute short, Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers, 1957), a lyrical cinematic reminiscence about romantic love seen from the confused, external perspective of young boys. The five boys in this story are all at that stage of adolescence, about 12-years-old,  when the mysterious attraction of the opposite sex first begins to dawn on them.  They are not really distinguished as individuals – they are collective, a pack of “brats” (the approximate English meaning of the title, “Les Mistons”) who revel in the adolescent pack-mentality of naughty boys eager to exercise their new-found freedom of action by being trouble makers. There is something magical about this age of discovery, to which Truffaut had a considerable sensitivity and fascination – it is the same age as the protagonist of his upcoming seminal first feature, The 400 Blows (1959). Indeed, Truffaut was working on the script for The 400 Blows at the time of production of Les Mistons. In the story of Les Mistons, though, the perspective is not directly that of a young boy, as is that of The 400 Blows, but is instead that of a reflective older narrator who is pensively recollecting on his past as one member of the pack of boys. The film location was the southern French town of Nimes, and some of the scenes are shot in the town’s famous Roman Amphitheater, which dates back to Roman times.
As young boys grow into their teens, they often like to imagine themselves in aggressive role-playing scenarios – and in Les Mistons the brat pack are shown engaging in fantasy shootouts in which they imagine themselves getting shot and heroically falling in slow motion.  But how do you imagine something you know nothing about, such as romantic love?  In this story, the boys have their first vicarious experiences of love, by observing the evolving summer romance of a young woman, Bernadette, who is the older sister of one of the “brats”. But it is all a mystery to them (and, come to think of it, still a mystery to me, too). All of the boys are captivated by the natural grace and beauty of Bernadette, but they have no idea how to respond to their newly awakened feelings of rapture.  Indeed, there is nothing they really can do; and anyway the boys have no idea of what romantic togetherness means, even in their fantasies. So they all reject the very idea of romantic love as yucky and something to be despised.  

In the opening scenes, we see extended shots of Bernadette zooming along through a park on her bicycle so that the breeze exposes her beautiful legs.  The boys love to spy on the woman gliding past on these occasions, as if she is local forest nymph.  Sometimes, when Bernadette has parked her bicycle somewhere and walked away, the boys approach the bicycle and unconsciously marvel that such a vehicle has recently hosted such a goddess.  One of the boys even kisses the bicycle seat where Bernadette had so recently been sitting.

But this collective ardor in limbo is finally ruptured when they learn that Bernadette has taken on a real boyfriend – a young man from town named Gerard.  The feelings that Bernadette and Gerard have for each other are beyond the boys’ comprehension, and the boys instinctively reject their love as something to be mocked and ridiculed.

So for the rest of that summer the brat pack follows Bernadette and Gerard around the town, usually at a safe distance, often looking for opportunities to torment the couple by laughing at them. On one occasion they sneak up on Bernadette and Gerard kissing in the Roman Amphitheater and then raucously give them the raspberries.  Another time they jeer the couple when they are stealing a kiss at the local cinema [1]. At other times, though, they just want to approach more closely; so they always make sure to attend Bernadette’s weekly tennis engagement with Gerard so that they can retrieve any errant tennis balls and have the thrill of handing them back to her.

As the summer goes on, the brats escalate their “attacks” on the loving couple. On one occasion they follow the couple heading for a tryst in the park and make a surprise interruption to the lovers’ romantic embraces. Although the boys are delightedly amused by the pranks, Gerard is increasingly peeved, and on this occasion he slaps one of the boys.  

When the summer ends and Gerard takes leave of the tearful Bernadette to go off on a mountain-climbing expedition, he earnestly promises wedding bells for her when he returns. The brats, meanwhile, proudly plan their boldest annoyance yet: sending Bernadette a signed (by the “Brats”) postcard suggestively accusing her of engaging in immoral acts. But life has its own mysterious course, and this supposedly brilliant prank is crushingly countered by the news that Gerard has died on the mountain-climbing expedition. 

The deserved mortification that was due from their nasty behaviour was late in coming. The narrator recalls seeing Bernadette one last time, in autumn, as she sadly walked down a sidewalk in mourning clothes, oblivious to their observation.  On that occasion, the narrator says, he felt more pity than shame. 

Although the story of Les Mistons seems supposedly about the brats, it is actually about the mystery and ephemerality of love and youth. As such, the true subject is really Bernadette (and her relationship with Gerard), and not the brats.  The role of Gerard was played by Gerard Blain (Les Cousins, 1959, The American Friend, 1977) [2].  The role of Bernadette was played by Bernadette Lafont, a native of Nimes who was only 18 in this, her film debut. Truffaut devotes his mise-en-scene throughout this film to celebrating his alluring subject, and it is very much visually focused on Lafont’s curvaceous and sensuous form.  This is not here so much an expressionistic romanticizing of glamour, a la von Sternberg, as it is a naturalistic celebration of a voluptuous and yet innocent child of nature [3]. 
So what is it about such moments of beauty and bliss that often elicit embarrassed rejection on the part of many uncomprehending males?  We see this kind of thing in many cultures, in some more than others, where the men somehow feel weak and humiliated by feelings of love.  It is somehow felt that it is unmanly to feel such empathy towards another – especially towards someone so different from oneself. So they respond with hatred.  Some cultures actually institutionalize such hatred in order to celebrate a “masculinity” that is only self-deluding. The narrator of Les Mistons has come to realize the folly of this kind of reaction and its adolescent source. At this early age in life, the boys in the film felt these amorous stirrings and rejected them, to the point of trying to mock the very idea.  The narrator now ruefully regrets his adolescent squeamishness about  love and his resulting attempts, with the other brats, to interfere with something that was mysteriously beautiful and which should instead have been revered.  Now, more experienced, he knows that those mysterious moments are all-too fleeting and when lost, can never be recovered.

  1. There are brief shots of the film that Bernadette and Gerard are supposedly watching at the movie theater that show a youthful Jean-Claude Brialy, who would become a fixture of many New Wave films. See, for example, Les Cousins (1959).
  2. Their ardor for each other was natural and convincing, and indeed Blain and Lafont were married during this period (1957-1959). 
  3. For further interesting comment on Les Mistons, see Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Les Mistons”, Senses of Cinema, February 2006, http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/mistons/.

No comments: