Truffaut did not make very many shorts in his lifetime. Once he started to be a name, he realized there was more money and more room to play in feature films instead of in shorts. However at the beginning of his career he made two shorts that I believe are important to watch in order to track the evolution of Truffaut’s style and storytelling.
The first short was actually the second thing he had ever committed to celluloid and the first thing he was proud of. Les Mistons (The Brats) can be seen as a precursor to The 400 Blows (the next project that he made) because it involves young prepubescent boys getting into mischief. They play around, stage pretend gun fights, hang onto fences, jump off of rocks and most importantly trail a young woman. This young woman is seen on a bike identically riding around in the Parisian sunshine. Her skirts billow around her and she is gorgeous to look at. These boys are smitten by her presence. They follow her as she meets up with her boyfriend, an older man. The couple have several trysts together that are observed with a jealous eye by this makeshift chorus of sorts (they even at one point are in what looks like a Roman Colesuem). She gets engaged to him just as he is leaving for vacation. The boys scheme to overcome this engagement but have no frame of reference to woo her. A tragic and abrupt event happens in the girl’s life: her boyfriend dies in a mountain climbing accident. The boys seem to lose track of her until one day they see her again. She is however no longer laughing and smiling. Her skirts no longer billow around her. Instead she walks briskly in drab dark clothing until she is out of the boys sight. This light short seemingly just about first love takes a subtly dark turn with this one scene. The camera usage in this film echoes Truffaut’s affinity for Hitchcock and Chaplin. The flowing camera seems to glide around the young woman’s body like Hitchcock’s camera glides down staircases to reveal a mysterious mcguffin. However the visual tricks evident in one scene where a young boy is shot down but is reminded to his starting position so that he can overcome the shots by his fellow playmates echoes Chaplin’s subtle camera trickery. It does not seem like Truffaut is ripping off these two auteurs, but rather embellishing his own fresh work with borrowed flourishes.
The second short was made a couple of years after The 400 Blows. Antoine et Colette picks up the Antoine Doinel story several years after the previous film. He is now on his own, making his own money and out of trouble. He loves music to the degree of obsession and he attends several classical performances and lectures with his old friend in tow. At one of these shows, he spots a girl. She plays with her necklace and flips her hair in such a coquette way as to keep his attention. He realizes that she is also a regular at these performances and contrives to meet her. He finally succeeds and they talk for hours. However there is just one hitch: she sees him more as a friend than a serious contender for a boyfriend. His obsession with her causes him to move to a new apartment in order to be near her and to befriend her parents who she lives with. All to no avail. His realization that he could never be her boyfriend come to a point when she leaves a dinner with him and her parents to go out with a much more burly man. Jean-Pierre Leaud reprises his role as Antoine as he will in the rest of the films about this fictional character’s life and he does an excellent job of slowly being crushed by his first love. He is so young in this film and yet so incredibly cute. There is this one shot of Leaud where he stands next to a painting of himself hiding behind his upturned collar on his sweatshirt like he does in The 400 Blows. It is this sort of winking to the audience that I hope Truffaut will continue throughout his films.
Les Mistons and Antoine et Colette are important for the same reason: it shows the potential and ease with the camera that Truffaut had during this period in his career. These were both made before he had a financial disaster, a Hollywood flop and a break up with his filmmaker best friend, Godard. This is him at his freest and really shows on the screen. Les Mistons can be viewed for free on youtube and Antoine et Colette come as an extra feature on the Criterion Collection’s version of The 400 Blows.