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French Cinema, Stars

Nouvelle vague Stars 1: Jean-Pierre Léaud

Born 1944, Jean-Pierre Léaud was already 14 when he was cast by François Truffaut as his 12 year-old alter ego, Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cents coups (see the remarkable audition sequence on YouTube).

After his success in this film, Léaud would go on to play Antoine Doinel in four more films over a period of twenty years. The first of these, Antoine et Collette (1962) sees an 18 year-old in his first job and with his first girl-friend. This film is still within the New Wave period. The next two, Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968) and Domicile conjugale (Bed & Board, 1970) see Antoine as a young man discharged from military service and attempting to build a relationship with Christine (Claude Jade). Finally, Antoine reappears as a thirty-something character in L’amour en fuite (Love on the run, 1979) which includes several flashbacks to the earlier films (a device first used in Antoine et Collette).

Not surprisingly, many audiences have responded to the close connection between Truffaut and Léaud. Physically, their build and facial features are quite similar and Léaud played further roles in Truffaut films. In Anne and Muriel (Les deux anglaises et le continent, 1971) the character may represent Truffaut at that stage in his career. In La nuit américaine (Day for Night, 1973), Léaud is a young actor named Alphonse (the name of Antoine’s son in the Doinel films) working on a film being made by a director played by Truffaut himself.

Léaud’s relationship with Truffaut would alone make him an important figure, but he has another claim to fame in terms of the films he made with Jean-Luc Godard. Although these came after the classic New Wave period, several commentators have seen them as characters/performances which in some way comment on the New Wave – and, of course, it is difficult to ‘date’ the New Wave in Godardian terms since he carried on refreshing his approach to cinema (where Truffaut, Chabrol and Rohmer perhaps moved towards a more conventional mode of filmmaking by the late 1960s). Léaud took the lead role in Masculin-Feminin (1966) after uncredited cameos in Alphaville and Pierrot le fou in 1965. He then followed up with further lead roles in Made in USA (1966) and Le Chinoise (1967) before a higher profile cameo in Weekend (1967). In fact he spent most of his time in the 1960s with either Truffaut or Godard and can be argued to be the only actor to work consistently with both directors.

Léaud and Truffaut in La nuit americaine

Léaud and Truffaut in La nuit americaine

Léaud has continued to work consistently in French film and television on both ‘popular’ and more art/avant garde productions. In his time he has worked with other New Wave directors (e.g. Jacques Rivette on the Out 1 films, 1971 and 1974, Agnes Varda on Jane b. by Agnes V. 1988 and Jean Eustache on La maman et la putain in 1973). He also worked for various auteurs both outside France, including Bertolucci on Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Aki Kaurismäki on I Hired a Contract Killer in 1990, and for younger directors such as Catherine Breillat in 36 Fillette (1988) and Olivier Assayas on Irma Vepp (1996).

One of the most interesting recent developments is to see the possible parallels between the way Shane Meadows has used Thomas Turgoose as his alter ego in much the same way as Truffaut used Leaud. (See the entries on the blog around Somers Town.)

I confess that I personally have mixed feelings about Jean-Pierre Léaud. Probably, I can’t separate him from Truffaut, so I find the adolescent attractive, the young man earnest and the older figure slightly disturbing. But that’s my problem. The actor has definitely been influential. What does anyone else think.

Here’s an interesting detailed critical piece on him: 

http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/8/lightness.html

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Nouvelle vague Stars 1: Jean-Pierre Léaud

  1. Leaud has virtually become the numero uno symbol of the new wave… As you said, covering seminal works of critical direcotrs and persisting right through the new wave period and beyond (watching him in Detective is a pleasant recalling of Truffaut’s B/W films), Leaud probably is to the new wave what Mifune is to the Samurai films….

    I watched the first quarter of The Wild Child assuming that it was Leaud on screen! Really, Truffaut and Leaud are interchangeable, if you may call it.

    Posted by Srikanth Srinivasan | April 10, 2009, 18:54
  2. Just saw the video. Fantastic. Richard Kanayan is a natural. And so is Leaud. Thanks for this…

    Posted by Srikanth Srinivasan | April 10, 2009, 19:17
  3. Though Leaud was inextricably tied to Truffaut, his deliberately drab and dreary on screen presence had many parallels with that of Delon. Had Melville cast Leaud and Delon together, they would have suited each other perfectly. Personally Leaud may have starred in Truffaut and Godard’s best films; Le Chinoise and The 400 Blows. The other thing is that Leaud’s relationship with Truffaut and Godard reminds me of Joseph Cotten’s work with Hitchcock and Welles in the 40s.

    Great focus on the stars of the nouvelle vague!

    Posted by omar ahmed | April 11, 2009, 18:33
    • Lots of interesting comments, Omar. I’m not sure I agree that Léaud appears ‘drab and dreary’. Serious (comically so) and pretentious perhaps? It’s intriguing to think of him in in one of Melville’s polars alongside Belmondo or Delon. I have thought a little about Delon in terms of New Wave stars. It’s almost accidental that he didn’t appear in a New Wave film, since, I would argue that he was the sexiest and most virile young man in French cinema around 1960. The problem was that he was already something of a star for the old guard of French Cinema and in 1960 he appeared as the Tom Ripley character in Plein Soleil for director René Clément. After that he worked for Visconti. He could perhaps have played the roles that Maurice Ronet took in Louis Malle’s films. Your comments suggest that he wouldn’t have been able to substitute for Jean-Claude Brialy or Jean-Paul Belmondo? I notice that Wikipedia describes him as a ‘French James Dean’.

      Posted by venicelion | April 11, 2009, 19:57
  4. The notion of Delon being described as a ‘French James Dean’ does seem appropriate as his incredibly photogenic face seemed to fit in so well with the bold, sharp aesthetics of Melville’s crime films. I think I may have been a little harsh on Leaud but I guess he lacked the screen presence of his contemporaries like Belmondo.

    Posted by omar ahmed | April 12, 2009, 15:40

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