Les Mistons is a short film that follows five teenage boys as they in turn follow two lovers. The boys are all in love with the girl and try to turn her against the guy. It is often given the English translation of The Brats, which is close, by not quite. A more direct (and better) translation is The Mischief Makers, a title more fitting of cinema’s beloved mischief-maker, François Truffaut.
François Truffaut was a mischief-maker from day one. As a child, he consistently ditched school to sneak into movie theaters. As he grew up, so did his interest in politics and he joined the army, only then to quickly deserted it. He was imprisoned for desertion and then released under the care of André Bazin, France’s leading film critic and theorist. Bazin’s influence got Truffaut a job as a film critic for Cahiers du Cinema, where Truffaut finally combined his outspoken and political nature with his love for cinema. As a critic, Truffaut was the loudest, sometimes downright vicious, voice against French cinema and in support of American cinema. So much so that when it came time for the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, he was the only French critic not invited. He vowed to return the following year, not as a critic, but as a director, and he did, with The 400 Blows in tow. His friend, Jean-Luc Godard once said, “The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.” With The 400 Blows, Truffaut criticized the entire French Film industry. He did it with words, and he did it with images, and it changed the face of cinema forever.
You gotta walk before you can swim, and Truffaut’s first effort was a Une Visite (1955), an eight-minute short that Truffaut quickly disowned and buried from public view. According to Wikipedia, the crew consisted of Truffaut and future New Wavers, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais and Truffaut’s boyhood friend Robert Lachenay. His next short was Les Mistons, and there, Truffaut’s signatures would emerge: teenage boys running around town, full of kinetic whirlwind energy and shockingly quiet moments. Watch Truffaut’s later pictures, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, The Wild Child, Day For Night, you will find all that here. The writer and champion of “la politique des Auteurs” wrote, “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors.” Les Mistons is proof positive that Truffaut would find his way into the “good” category of directors.
Even though the story of Les Mistons focuses on the group of boys running hither and yon, the camera focused on the lovely Bernadette Lafont. Les Mistons was the first of Lafont’s one hundred and twenty plus roles in her lifetime, and she would set the tone for Truffaut’s long list of beautiful ladies. Those beautiful creatures, with their flawless figures and seductive natural curves… Not at all surprising that Truffaut would later make The Man Who Loved Women (1977). While still at Cahiers, Truffaut wrote, “Cinema is the art of the woman, that is of the actress. The director’s work consists in getting pretty women to do pretty things.” No woman has ever been filmed quite like one in a Truffaut film. One could call it a fetish, I call it appreciation.
There isn’t much of a story to Les Mistons, but there is a continuation. The character of Antoine Doinel is not present in Les Mistons, but he will emerge as their leader. Doinel is the greatest of Truffaut’s Mischief Makers, and he would have had a field day here. These boys don’t take it far enough, but Doinel and Truffaut would. Watching Les Mistons in 2014, one cannot help but see Truffaut in his infancy-very much on the same lines as comparing All The Boys Are Named Patrick to future Godard movies. But, I can’t help but wonder what did audience members in 1957 make of Les Mistons? Did they see the hallmark of genius to come? Did they see life breathed back into cinema? Or did they see a bunch of silly kids running around, not sitting still, and creating havoc? If they did, I doubt they saw anymore Truffaut movies. If they didn’t, how I pity them.