Ode to Jean-Pierre Léaud

Pub date January 16, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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The critic Philippa Hawker once offered an amazingly accurate and concise definition of the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud’s unique performing style: "He is himself, he is his character Antoine Doinel, he is New Wave incarnate, he is the past-in-the-present, the past remembered and re-evaluated."

As Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (1959), perhaps the best movie François Truffaut ever made, Léaud brought to life a character so engaging and so complex that it’s hard to believe a person so young — he was 15 at the time — was capable of such an extraordinary performance. It’s harder, maybe even pointless, to decipher how much of Doinel’s disarmingly timid and shy rebellion — which borders on cowardliness, or the mere desire to avoid punishment — reflects Léaud himself and how much of it is skillful acting.

Léaud’s beautiful rendering of a character who goes through a turbulent and harsh adolescence while managing to remain innocent and possibly a little naive earned him a series of films with Truffaut. In Antoine et Colette (part of L’Amour à Vingt Ans, 1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), and finally, Love on the Run (1979), Doinel struggles to find his way in society but remains an outsider. While the Doinel movies dip in quality, Léaud remains as captivating as he is in his first cinematic appearance, maintaining the sensitivity or vulnerability that distinguishes him from rougher rogue contemporaries such as Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Unlike Belmondo’s restless yet supercool, smooth Michel in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), Léaud’s Doinel is hyperactive and tense, his hands repeating certain movements, his articulation closer to punctuated reciting than to normal speech, his gaze surprised, intense, and inquiring. He is torn in two by conflicting forces, wanting to stay and wanting to go at the same time. Doinel would like to explore the world around him and accumulate experiences, but he’s always ready to make his exit running.

Léaud also made a number of movies with Godard. In films like La Chinoise (1967), Weekend (1967), and most notably Masculine Feminine (1966), the actor retains his insatiable desire to flirt and go crazy over love, and his childlike enthusiasm. But he trades physical intensity for increased political or ideological sophistication and reflection. In Godard’s visions of a Marx-and-Coca-Cola era, the reasons Léaud’s characters fail to fit in are a lot clearer than they ever were with Truffaut. Léaud’s misfits can be ill-fated: in this regard, Masculine Feminine foreshadows Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973). They also can be wise tricksters, as in both versions (1971 and 1972) of Jacques Rivette’s gargantuan Out 1.

After Léaud immersed himself in the character of Antoine Doinel, connecting his name and acting persona so closely to the French new wave, his appearance as Alexandre in Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore seems natural and adds some interesting metatextual effects. As Hawker puts it, "Léaud’s performance — in which his character gradually finds himself out of his depth, devastated, in which a carefully constructed masculinity proves insufficient to the messy demands and challenges placed on it by two women — is painful to watch, but it’s also fascinating to see him going quietly, as it were." Considering the film’s theme — the death of a liberated era, as exemplified by the impossibility of a healthy love triangle — one cannot avoid feeling that the end of Léaud’s character signifies the conclusion of one of recent European history’s most volatile and important periods.

Léaud’s iconic status figures as an undercurrent in his more recent appearances in films such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), Aki Kaurismäki’s La Vie de Bohème (1992), and especially Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996). In casting Léaud as an old French director whose heyday is long past and who is hopelessly trying to create a remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915), Assayas joins the actor in winking sympathetically at the now-idolized and perhaps idealized past he represents — a time of general excitement and experimentation, when everything seemed possible and cinema was daring.


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