Film reviews

François Truffaut: Criticizing the “Pleasant“ Child in Children’s Films 

In November 1955, François Truffaut (1932-1984) published a scathing review of Jean Delannoy’s children’s film Chiens perdus sans collier (Lost Dogs without Collars), presented to the public earlier in the same year. Part of his criticism was aimed directly at the team of writers that had adapted Gilbert Cesbron’s novel of the same title: Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost and François Boyer. They had already worked together on René Clément’s Jeux interdits in 1951. 

Truffaut, a film critic (among others for Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinéma), actor, producer and director, is credited with co-founding the French movement of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). His text A Certain Tendency of French Cinema (Une certaine tendance du cinéma français), in which he criticized what he considered to be ponderous, only superficially artistic, traditional and unoriginal post-war film-making by “recipe”, came to be a foundational text both of the Nouvelle Vague and the Politique des Auteurs or Auteur Theory. 

The latter describes an attitude to film-making that understands the director to be the author of a film. The film is interpreted as an expression of their own unique style and distinctive approach, thematic focus, and personal preoccupations. The idea originated and was spread via film criticism in the 1940ies.

Before outlining Truffaut’s critique, it should be mentioned that Truffaut’s biting style in his criticism of Delannoy has come to be considered his special “trademark”. It is emblematic of his general critical attitude, frequently expressed in the form of injuring, heated polemics, towards many commercial French films of the time. Bernard Bastide argues that Truffaut started his career by “squeezing out some of his elders”, earning himself such favorable titles as “the most hated man of Paris”, “a terrorist critic”, or “the grave-digger of French cinema” (Bastide 2019). He also harshly criticized and entered into a long feud with director Claude Autant-Lara, for example. It was these polemics, introducing and defending without concessions the new style of a new generation of film-makers, that made his name even before he became successful as a producer and director in his own right.

His critique of Chiens perdus sans collier is directed mainly at what he considers a schematic, unoriginal depiction of children aimed at pleasing, “flattering” the general public, making it “chuckle with contentment”. The film, he argues, makes use of all the typical stereotypes of the children’s film: “cruelty […], children who love each other, the little one that admires the big one, the one who is beaten, the one whose mother walks the streets and the one who does not have a mother”. There is the “innocent pout, lips stuck out, the strand of hair over the eye, the gruff voice” of “poor second-hand actors that one is tempted to slap because they are so affected and false, sugar-sweet to the point of nausea”. On the other side of this is the typical benevolent adult, “the good mediocre Frenchman, the incarnation of common sense, a person between Ded Rysel and Papa Gâteau.” Ded Rysel was an actor who was well-known for his engagement for the poor during the winter of 1944/45. “Papa Gâteau” is a term designating a doting, protective father (cf. “sugar daddy”).

Chiens perdus sans collier, according to Truffaut, is “not a failed film, it is iniquity perpetrated in compliance with certain rules and consistent with ambitions that are easily guessed: ‘land a big hit’ by cowering behind the etiquette of Quality [capitalization in the original].” 

Truffaut attacks both the director, Jean Delannoy, and the script writers Aurenche and Bost – he does not mention Boyer, although he lists him in the film credits at the bottom of the article. Jean Delannoy, he states, is “a man not sufficiently intelligent to be cynical, too scheming to be sincere, too pretentious and solemn to be simple”. His style is neither “rigorous nor clean, […] poor in innovation […]. Every movement of the camera gives off the impression of idiocy and groundlessness.”  He also calls Aurenche and Bost “two disillusioned and cynical screenplay writers […] who have written ‘touching’ replicas”, i.e. nothing but unoriginal formulas that the viewers recognize and can identify with. Aurenche especially, he claims, overstretches his anticlericalism to “soothe his conscience” and “buy back his own respect and that of his friends” after having taken on this conventional and “clean” project.  

Really, Truffaut says, the film does not dare anything new but rather sticks to what its makers think will please the general public. The dialogue especially sounds unnatural to him, drawing on the “most basic demagogy”. Its authors, he claims, “too old, have forgotten how children talk; if they sometimes try to retrieve the ‘tone’, their sensibility atrophied by bad reading, bad films and the intellectual corruption of the screenplay writing profession renders their approach futile.” This indirectly attacks also both Bost and Boyer, who are not directly addressed. 

Truffaut will later make several critically acclaimed children’s films himself, like the autobiographically inspired Les quatre cents coups (The 400 blows) or his portrait of Victor of Aveyron, L’enfant sauvage (The Wild Child). His first film Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers), also childhood-themed, attacks Jean Delannoy’s film again in one of its scenes (cf. Bastide 2019). Delannoy and Truffaut nursed a public feud for years, emblematic of the competition between “older” French styles of film-making and the artistic idealism arising with the Nouvelle Vague. In relation to Boyer, one could argue that his work, too, has to be placed in the context of this field of tensions. 


Bernard Bastide, Croniques d’Arts-Spectacles (1954-1958). Paris: Gallimard, 2019.

François Truffaut, “Chiens perdus sans collier de Jean Delannoy”. In: Arts-Spectacles (Nov. 9-15, 1955), No. 541, n.p.

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