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 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: