To be anointed as the child of the nouvelle vague could be a burden for any actor to bear, but Jean-Pierre Léaud has carried it with grace, inventiveness and humility over more than half a century of cinema. In more recent years, he has also assumed a kind of paternal role – in his own, idiosyncratic way – to new generations of filmmakers.
There is, despite the adventurous choices and variety of his projects, a sense of continuity in what he has done. It’s a thread that runs from film to film, as if his performances make up one long cinematic work. Yet there are no egotistical undertones to this. Léaud has always defined himself through his directors, seeing himself as their interpreter, a carrier of their desires; he has often functioned as a figure who corresponds in some way to the director (1).
Singling out works for a retrospective often seems difficult because of this feeling of connection and continuity, as I found when co-curating the Léaud program for the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival. And he has an extraordinarily dense body of work. When I interviewed director Olivier Assayas about the films he made with Léaud, I asked him, out of interest, what he might choose for a retrospective. “All of them” (2), he replied, before saying that he might be able to narrow it down a little, but would certainly suggest including almost everything Léaud made in the 1960s and 1970s.
It would have been unthinkable, of course, to start with anything else but the film that launched him. In 1958, at the age of 14, Léaud attended a casting call for Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), the first feature from François Truffaut, firebrand critic and cinephile turned filmmaker. Léaud’s father, Pierre Léaud, was a screenwriter and assistant director; his mother, Jacqueline Pierreux, an actress who later became a producer. He had made a couple of appearances on screen. The first was at the age of four, for a matter of seconds in a film on which his father worked, Un homme marche dans la ville (A Man Walks in the City, 1950), directed by Marcel Pagliero. The second was a speaking role alongside Jean Marais in a period film called La Tour, prends garde! (King on Horseback, Georges Lampin, 1958). But Truffaut was not interested in any connection Léaud might have with the film world. What he noticed was how desperate Léaud was to play the role (3).
The experiences of the film’s central character, Antoine Doinel, reflected that of Truffaut, but Doinel evolved into a potent combination of director and actor, offering one of the most poignant, rich and haunting depictions of childhood on screen. Solitary, resourceful, at the mercy of family, school and the state, Antoine becomes increasingly isolated, right up to the moment of that famous freeze-frame that ends the film. Many of Léaud’s particular qualities as an actor – his distinctive approaches to gesture, energy, humour, histrionics, physical comedy and dialogue – are foreshadowed in an uncanny way in The 400 Blows.
In 1962, Truffaut decided to return to the character of Doinel when he was asked to contribute to an international anthology film called L’amour à vingt ans (Love at 20). In this 32-minute film, Antoine et Colette – a delicate, deftly constructed story of unfulfilled desire – Truffaut showed us that Doinel had taken a somewhat unexpected path. He has become a quieter, more focused figure than we might have been expected from The 400 Blows. He is self-sufficient, working, attending concerts, and diffidently pursuing a girl – although it is her parents with whom he has the most success.
Truffaut made three more Doinel features with Léaud, taking him through idiosyncratic experiences of work, relationships, marriage, fatherhood, divorce and the discovery of his vocation as a writer. Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968), Domicile conjugal (Bed And Board, 1970) and L’amour en fuite (Love on The Run, 1979) – in addition to The 400 Blows and Antoine et Colette – make up an unparalleled depiction of a life unfolding on screen, and of a character’s and an actor’s simultaneous development.
Léaud and Truffaut are indelibly linked, and their creative relationship is unique. Yet Léaud made more films with Jean-Luc Godard than with Truffaut. Godard took him on as an assistant for several films – Une femme mariée: Suite de fragments (1964), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965) and Made In U.S.A. (1966) – and all also cast him as a lead in Masculin féminin (1966). The producer Anatole Dauman recalls how “Godard came to see me with a charming smile to announce that he was going to direct Jean-Pierre Léaud in some further adventures of Antoine Doinel in between the episodes of Truffaut’s series” (4).
If Godard had intended the casting to be a provocation, it worked. Truffaut told the director in an angry letter how much he disliked the way Godard had directed Léaud: “It was in Masculin féminin that I noticed for the first time how he could be filled with anxiety rather than pleasure at the notion of finding himself in front of a camera” (5). Whatever it was about that performance that distressed Truffaut, there is undoubtedly a sense of anxiety, or perhaps discomfort, running through the film. In some ways, it’s a severe work, passing judgement on the pop culture of the time, particularly the young women Godard focuses on; yet it is also a melancholy evocation of Léaud’s character, Paul, a figure who is both energetic and adrift.
Léaud could have been caught in an uncomfortable position between Truffaut and Godard, as the relationship between the two men was fraught. Yet he continued to make films with both, and to take roles in a remarkable range of works in the 1960s and 1970s by the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Glauber Rocha, Philippe Garrel, Luc Moullet, Bernardo Bertolucci and Jacques Rivette.
Masculin féminin also played a direct role in allowing Jean Eustache to make a movie with Léaud. Le père Noël a les yeux bleus (Father Christmas Has Blue Eyes, 1967) was shot with leftover film stock from Masculin féminin given to Eustache by Godard. It is a long short film, set in Narbonne, where Eustache spent his teenage years. Léaud plays a young man, Daniel, scuffling for money, saving up for a new winter coat that will make him seem more respectable and more credible with women. He and his friends steal books, hustle a bingo game: then, when Daniel gets a job working the pavements in a Santa Claus outfit, he discovers briefly the kind of freedom that anonymity can bestow. There’s vulnerability and swagger in Léaud’s performance, and a sense of disconnection too.
In addition, Masculin féminin provided a starting point for 1967’s Le départ (The Departure), the first work shot outside his home country by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski. Having seen Godard’s film, Skolimowski decided to use two of its cast members, Léaud and Catherine Duport, as well as the cinematographer, Willy Kurant (who was used on this occasion rather than Godard’s usual collaborator, Raoul Coutard). Skolimowski’s film draws on one of Léaud’s signature elements: his speed. It’s a frenetic, agile, sometimes berserk performance. The opening shot – Léaud pulling a black polo-neck sweater over his head – is a quick nod to The 400 Blows, but his character, a hairdresser with automotive dreams, thereafter develops his own momentum, feverishly searching for a specific fantasy car in which to compete in a race.
Léaud worked once more with Eustache in what many would consider the actor’s greatest performance. La maman et la putain (The Mother And The Whore, 1973) is epic and claustrophobic, a lacerating self-portrait that is also an implied critique of the post-1968 generation. Léaud’s Alexandre is prolix, passive yet manipulative, a disconcertingly self-centred figure, drifting between two women in a calculatedly aimless fashion; he is a compulsive performer and talker. The Mother and the Whore is a minutely scripted work that seems unscripted and loose. It had a documentary quality because of the way it so closely echoed events and conversations of Eustache’s own life. Léaud recalled, in an interview with Sight and Sound, that Eustache was “adamant that the text had to be just as he’d written it, down to the last comma” (6). It’s a role that that also challenges Léaud to lay bare, almost to empty out, the kinds of characters and performance strategies he has previously embodied.
Léaud was an adventurous actor in many senses of the term – in where he would travel and in what he was ready to explore. He was part of one of the most notable and singular of cinematic adventures: Jacques Rivette’s legendary, still rarely seen Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971). A work in eight parts, of 12 hours and 40 minutes, it initially received only one cinema screening, and only existed as a work print until 1990. A shorter version of more than four hours, known as Out 1: Spectre, was more widely seen.
This vast, complex, challenging film had relationships with many texts, including Balzac’s La comédie humaine, but it is also fundamentally a work of its time, and of the process of its production. It was also a unique experiment in improvisation. Rivette asked his ensemble of actors to invent and develop their own characters, an invitation that some handled more comfortably than others. Léaud’s character, Colin, exists on the margins, but becomes an essential element of the narrative, becoming more paranoid and isolated as more of its mysteries are revealed.
Much changed for Léaud in the 1980s. The death of Truffaut in 1984, in particular, had a devastating effect. When Léaud re-engaged with cinema, it was in a different way. Another wave of younger French filmmakers, such as Bertrand Bonello, Lucas Belvaux and Olivier Assayas, found an inspiration in him. It was the same for directors beyond France, such as Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang and Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki.
Philippe Garrel, who made an experimental film, La concentration, with Léaud and Zouzou in 1968, used him to powerful, anguished effect in a short film, Rue Fontaine (included in the portmanteau film Paris vu par… vingt ans après, 1984), and a remarkable feature, La naissance de l’amour (The Birth Of Love, 1993).
Serge Le Péron has also made two features with Léaud in this later period: L’affaire Marcorelle (2000) and J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka (I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, 2005). After L’affaire Marcorelle, he also made a short documentary, Léaud l’unique (2001), a loving tribute in which he persuaded a range of directors and actors – mostly the former – to share their observations about Léaud.
Kaurismäki is one of Léaud’s most fervent, consistent admirers. As a young man, he co-wrote and starred in Valehtellja (The Liar, 1981), directed by his brother Mika, in which he explicitly channelled Léaud’s look and style, playing a young man hustling his way around Helsinki. He has made three movies with Léaud, beginning with the English-language I Hired A Contract Killer (1990), a downbeat fairytale set in a kind East End-Ealing, neo-noir London. Léaud’s character, Henri Boulanger, is a civil servant made redundant and who wants to end it all. When his suicide attempts fail, he hires a contract killer to finish the job. Léaud’s performance, as the hapless Henri, is a singular combination of stoicism and lightness.
Finally, Assayas made two features with the actor in the 1990s: Paris s’éveille (1991) and Irma Vep (1996). Léaud has often played filmmakers or figures on film sets: in Irma Vep he is an obsessed director, bent on recreating his own homage-remake of one of the masterpieces of silent cinema, Louis Feuillade’s Les vampires (1915), inspired by a muse (Maggie Cheung) whom he has seen in a Hong Kong action movie. Léaud’s character, René Vidal, is an extraordinarily poignant creation. For Assayas, the casting of Léaud brought something unique to the character:
He is one of the most powerful presences, for me, in the history of French cinema. I think Jean-Pierre is a poet, he carries something so intense, [and] he brings to your set something that is unlike anything any other actor brings…. He brings concentration, spirituality. He believes in invisible presences, he has a mystical idea of cinema which is just so beautiful, because it gives an intensity to everyone that is around him. [With him] you share that faith in the power of cinema, in the power of images. (7)
The 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) will feature a program stream on Jean-Pierre Léaud, co-curated with Philippa Hawker. Find out more and purchase tickets at the MIFF website.
1. Jan Dawson, “Getting Beyond the Looking Glass”, Sight and Sound vol. 34, no. 1, Winter 1973/4, p. 46.
2. Assayas interview with the author, November 2012.
3. François Truffaut, “Who is Antoine Doinel?” The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, DVD Booklet, Criterion Collection, New York, 2002, p. 3.
4. Jacques Gerber, Anatole Dauman: Pictures of a Producer, trans. Paul Willemen, BFI, London, 1992, p. 97.
5. Truffaut in Gilles Jacob and Claude de Givray (eds.), Letters, François Truffaut, trans. and ed. Gilbert Adair, Faber, London and Boston, 1989, p. 385.
6. Dawson. P. 47.
7. Assayas interview with the author.