If you were to glance around a cafe in Paris' Left Bank any time in the past forty years, especially a place frequented by the academics of the Boul Mich, you'd undoubtedly notice someone like Jean-Pierre Léaud: slender, nervous, animated, with sharply cut features and the trademark neck scarf, making points with a lit cigarette (preferably Gauloises) while pretending to sip from the espresso cup he's been nursing for three hours, dominating the conversation, occupying the stage, playing the role.
Léaud got to be the face of his generation the hard way; he worked his way up from juvenile delinquent. The native Parisian, son of a screenwriter and an actress, was fourteen when he began his epochal relationship with filmmaker François Truffaut, playing the part of conflicted schoolboy Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups). Doinel not only defined Léaud's career but shaped the French New Wave into the cinema of everyday rebellion. Suddenly even a typewriter thief could be a role model — or actually, not even a typewriter thief but especially one, if he possessed Doinel's combination of hard luck, mischievous-but-sweet expression, and Gallic shoulder shrug.
Obviously Truffaut saw something in the teenage Léaud, perhaps an updated version of the same quality André Bazin saw in unwanted child/army deserter Truffaut. Film critic Bazin mentored Truffaut, and Truffaut did the same for Léaud, perhaps encouraged by the fact that the kid bore a distinct physical resemblance to himself. Just compare stills from The 400 Blows with head shots of the young Truffaut. Léaud as a boy strikingly resembled his mentor, and then as he aged his face seemed to take on the iconic planes and angles of Sherlock Jr.-era Buster Keaton and mercurial actor Antonin Artaud, in turn. Rebels all.
Léaud went on to portray Doinel in five legendary films for Truffaut, the quintessential collaboration of both careers and certainly among the most convincing inhabitations of a character in the history of film. All five titles are included in "Jean-Pierre Léaud: The New Wave and Beyond," a fourteen-film retrospective beginning Friday, January 18 at the Pacific Film Archive.
The endlessly self-absorbed Doinel grows before our eyes, but he doesn't necessarily mature — his wisdom derives from the streets, always. The neglected truant of The 400 Blows loses his innocence the instant the cell doors close on him at the police station. Cutting class and stealing pocket change were merely practice. As he grows older, pauvre type Doinel bounces out of the army, dabbles in love (Stolen Kisses), marries upwardly and fools around (Bed and Board), then settles into that permanent twilight of the ego so perfectly etched in Love on the Run. It's easy to imagine Doinel at seventy, still pulling pranks on squares and daydreaming about his youth, now fully idealized. Everyone knows an Antoine Doinel, but it is Léaud's good fortune, or maybe his curse, to be him forever.
Not that he didn't have plenty of opportunities to stretch out in other films. In the midst of the Doinel cycle, Léaud began a parallel collaboration with director Jean-Luc Godard, who took advantage of the actor's picturesque intensity to cast him as a would-be philosophe on the make (Masculine Feminine), a Mao-smitten Latin Quarter revolutionary (La Chinoise), and, with bracing abruptness, as time-traveling Saint-Just, exhorting the dazed survivors of a car crash to engage in class struggle, in Weekend.
Godard famously saw the leftist actor and his fellow 68ers as the "children of Marx and Coca-Cola," and lost no opportunity to have Léaud declaim his most didactic dialogue. Where Doinel — as well as Léaud's other characters for Truffaut in general, in such films as Day for Night and Two English Girls — luxuriated in a perpetual adolescent voyage of personal discovery, Godard's Léaud walked the same Paris streets as an outwardly directed example of arrested development, the perfect caricature of a cafe intellectuel de gauche.
Along those lines, the actor reached his apotheosis in Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973), three-and a-half-hour's worth of romantic triangle. Frequent Truffaut heroine Bernadette Lafont plays Marie, the docile live-in girlfriend of a selfish (what else?) man named Alexandre (Léaud), who spends most of his time hanging out in cafes, talking trash. One day, Alexandre brings home a nurse, Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), who constantly brags about her "maximum" of sexual adventures. The stage is thus set for a proto-feminist talkfest on gender, relationships, and morality — or at least as feminist as it could possibly be, written and directed by a French male filmmaker. From this launch pad, Léaud blasts off into entirely new galaxies of rationalization and bravado, most of it debating the presumption that the "typical male's" fantasies involve either a mother or a whore. The performance remains one of his best.
Despite his indelibly Gallic typecasting, Léaud also worked for a few non-French directors in his 82 films to date, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carlos Diegues, and Aki Kaurismäki. The latter is represented in the PFA's series by the 1992 comedy La vie de bohème. Also in the lineup are Jacques Rivette's Out 1: Spectre, a three-hour reduction of the director's twelve-hour, thirteen-character experiment in narrative; and Irma Vep by Olivier Assayas, with Léaud parodying himself as an irrationally imperious filmmaker. In two films by director Bernardo Bertolucci, Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers, Léaud essays further variations on his movie-drunk dreamer persona — in the latter film he plays two versions of himself, the 1968 Léaud (on newsreel) and the 2003 one, crosscut together in the same brief cameo scene. The two Bertolucci films got left out of this retrospective, but one has to draw the line somewhere.
"Jean-Pierre Léaud: The New Wave and After," curated by Susan Oxtoby, opens Friday with a double bill of The 400 Blows (7 p.m.) and La Chinoise (9:10). The Truffaut film is introduced by the late director's daughter, Berkeley resident Laura Truffaut. For more info on the series, visit BAMPFA.berkeley.edu.
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