Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
There's a moment in Francois Truffaut's "Small Change" that remembers childhood so well we don't know whether to laugh or ache. It takes place in a classroom a few minutes before the bell at the end of the school day. The class cutup is called on. He doesn't have the answer (he never does), but as he stands up his eyes stray to a large clock outside the window. The hand stands at 28 minutes past the hour. Click: 29 minutes. He stalls, he grins, the teacher repeats the question. Click: 30 minutes, and the class bell rings. The kid breaks out in a triumphant grin as he joins the stampede from the room.
This moment, like so many in Truffaut's magical film, has to be seen to be appreciated. He recreates childhood, and yet he sees it objectively, too: He remembers not only the funny moments but the painful ones. The agony of a first crush. The ordeal of being the only kid in class so poor he has to wear the same sweater every day. The painful earnestness that goes into the recitation of a dirty joke that neither the teller nor the listeners quite understand.
Truffaut has been over some of this ground before. His first feature, "The 400 Blows," told the painful story of a Paris adolescent caught between his warring parents and his own better nature. In "Small Change" he returns to similar material in a sunnier mood. He tells the stories of several kids in a French provincial town, and of their parents and teachers. His method is episodic; only gradually do we begin to recognize faces, to pick the central characters out from the rest. He correctly remembers that childhood itself is episodic: Each day seems separate from any other, each new experience is sharply etched, and important discoveries and revelations become great events surrounded by a void. It's the accumulation of all those separate moments that create, at last, a person.
"Children exist in a state of grace," he has a character say at one point. "They pass untouched through dangers that would destroy an adult." There are several such hazards in "Small Change." The most audacious - Truffaut at his best - involves a 2-year-old child, a kitten, and an open window on the 10th floor. Truffaut milks this situation almost shamelessly before finally giving us the happiest of denouements. And he exhibits at the same time his mastery of film; the scene is timed and played to exist exactly at the border between comedy and tragedy, and from one moment to the next we don't know how we should feel. He's got the audience in his hand.
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