In 2009, the Ontario Cinémathèque in Toronto presented a cycle on the nouvelle vague, and screened Masculin-Féminin (Masculine-Feminine, Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), a film that I had seen numerous times, but always in deplorable conditions (a bad VHS copy from a video-club that I frequented, or the painful 16mm print that my university still keeps in its mediathèque, which I subjected a class of students to in the early 2000s). A dream opportunity to see a beautiful version of this important film, the first role of Jean-Pierre Léaud (to whom I had already dedicated a private cult) in a Godard film (a big deal, since beforehand he had only played bit parts in Godard films: a film spectator near the end of Pierrot le fou, a waiter in Alphaville). The 35mm print was luminous, in spite of the fog and the cold of the Parisian autumn-winter of 1965, when the film was shot. A true film, one that breaths its era, like all Godard films do, one where we feel the gloominess that must have accompanied the December elections keeping De Gaulle in power. It was a time when there was already talk of escalation in Vietnam (we hear cries of “Yankees Go Home!”), and when graffiti first started appearing on the walls of the city. In the film, we can hear the speech of the young: brilliant, uninhibited, sometimes scatterbrained, even a little timid, wrapped up in oversized trenchcoats. A few years later, the same young people will throw paving stones at riot police. A magnificent film in black and white, 1.37:1 Academy ratio (a format with which Godard has recently re-familiarised himself), an image that occupies the whole surface of the screen and floods over the spectator’s face when seated in the front rows of the theatre. A kind of despairing, violent vitality innervates every shot and calls attention to every moment, every detail in the film. I am right in the film, ready to capture everything it throws at me. And then, in the middle of an anodine shot towards the middle of the first reel, something catches my attention and overwhelms me: Jean-Pierre Léaud’s left hand.
The scene – I want to say: my scene – is perfectly banal. It precedes the long conversation/interview (concluding the film’s third chapter, and the print’s first reel), improvised by Léaud and Chantal Goya (the improvised interrogation is a technique frequently used by Godard during this period: see Une femme mariée [A Married Woman, 1964], La Chinoise , 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle [Two Or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967], and even his television series in the 1970s). The scene shows Paul (Léaud), who has come to see Madeleine (Goya) to remind her that it is the 23rd (of November), and she had agreed to go out with him on the 23rd. My scene begins with Léaud precipitously opening a door and propelling his whole body forward before recomposing himself. He bursts into a vestibule, a small space between the corridor and the toilet, with a sink (to the bottom right of the screen) and coat hooks frontally aligned before us. The toilet door is at the back of the room, and Léaud, while seeking not to disturb the girl who is in the bathroom, uses his left hand to knock on the door several times, first with an open palm, then with a closed fist, before leaning against the wall, just below the hooks, in order to wait for her to come out. He crosses his arms, smooths out his hair with his right hand (a typical gesture, seen so often), before putting his hand underneath his left elbow. It is at this point that his left hand appears. Like an event that only I can see. An event – which is a spectatorial act – that I have just added to the image, a bonus that I graft onto the scene unfolding before my eyes. This hand has nothing to do with the scene, and yet it totally absorbs my attention. Léaud’s left hand, flat, with the fingers slightly spread out, is resting on the right pocket of his jacket, but in such a way that the whole left hand seems tied to his body, supported by the right hand holding his elbow, preventing it from moving. The fingers move about nervously, tapping the tweed of his jacket. Madeleine exits the bathroom. A banal conversation ensues. Paul makes his way towards the sink, takes a glass, fills it from the tap while passing over Madeleine washing her hands, then returns to his post leaning on the wall, while, this whole time, his left hand remains stuck to his body, at hip height. “You know it’s the 23rd?” Paul says. “Yeah, so what?” Madeleine answers. Paul lowers his eyes, looks at his glass of water. His left hand then moves towards his right pocket, his fingers curl up as if to slide into it, but then his hand changes its mind, the finders uncurl themselves and are placed first on his left side for a fraction of a second, before returning to their habitual position, just above his right jacket pocket. “Why, what happens on the 23rd?” Madeleine, seen from behind, hasn’t remembered a thing. Léaud’s hand remains fixed, the palm flat out, his arm held tight against the body, for most of the scene that follows. These three moments of an improvised, unfortunate adventure of a left hand – 1. hey look, I’m going to find the pocket, 2. oh! not such a good idea after all, I’m an idiot, I’ll go here instead, 3. oh well, screw it, I’ll just go back to where I was – these three moments which seem to overlay the living with the mechanical (the definition of laughter, according to Bergson), last exactly one second (13:30-13:31 on the DVD).
What is the origin of this pleasure I feel in playing this second back to myself, after having received it so vividly one evening in the spring of 2009? Does it come from the exclusivity of my gaze (I am convinced that I am the only one who has seen it, or at any rate to have derived such pleasure from it)? From suddenly seeing a slip-up, a failed act, without any consequence, which got past both the actor and the director? A gesture (or a non-gesture) that perfectly embodies the nature of the actor/character that was Léaud? A privileged, intimate access to the precise moment of the past where this breach is carried out?
This kind of mistake or slip-up abounds in Godard’s œuvre, and there is nothing original about it per se. Thus, if this epiphany fills me with such wonder, it is because it awakens in me other memories that had never been activated, scenes from films with Jean-Pierre Léaud in them where his left hand gets “caught out”, so to speak (in Masculine-Feminine, by the way, there are several other scenes in which his left hand wanders around and doesn’t know where to go, in such a way that, in my memory, it is often stuck in his coat pocket or shamefully hidden under a table). I remember a scene that came back to me, from La Maman et la Putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache, 1973). In the first reel of the film, Léaud is in a café with Gilberte, who he was waiting for after the end of class. In his right hand, he holds a cigarette and, naturally, smokes it. His left hand is placed under his elbow, on the edge of the table. His long fingers move as if they were mimicking the gesticulations of a spider’s legs, then the palm of his left hand moves to his side, with his fingers spread out, stuck under the arm, before they manage, a few moments later, to detach themselves from his body, and deploy themselves more freely, as his palm is raised towards the ceiling (like the hands of Christ, or a beggar hesitating to ask for alms), swinging about as it follows, with a slight delay, the rhythm of his speech.
If I analyse Léaud’s acting, it occurs to me that he uses his right hand like a dramatic lever, deployed or abused in a number of scenes (his fingers are wands that mark the tempo of his oratorical declamations), whereas his left hand often seems to pose a problem (since if he gesticulated with his left hand as much as his right hand, he would look like a puppet). If his right hand is occupied (if it is holding a book, for example), his left hand is free to wander around, and it is put to perfectly good use, as in the beautiful scene in Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), where he recites a St. Just text. In other words, he often has no idea where to put it, how to make it participate in his performance, how to make it follow the rhythm of the rest of his body, the flow of his speech, without this slight lag. Moreover, it always seems a little stiff in the knuckles, and the pins and needles that he seems saddled with starts to affect his whole arm, well above the elbow, as if the situation required some stretching exercises, like swimmers or pianists do. Placing the limb tightly against his body, held in place by a kind of invisible elastic, is thus the ideal solution, the most economical way to contain and prevent it from going off in all directions. The unique energy that characterises Léaud’s acting (from the moment that he became aware he was an actor, during the period when he shot Masculine-Feminine, I believe) generally proceeds by leaps and bounds, and it is unevenly distributed across his entire body. This same energy – which makes him leap up like a spring before coiling back up again, minuscule and timid, into the collar of his coat, which makes him switch from tenderness to fury, indolence to mad passion – is constituted by autonomous circuits which are not always very well oriented (as with slapstick actors or certain dancers in musicals, but in a much less demonstrative mode), thereby creating a curious, fascinating impression of indecision and concern, of naturalness and affectation, which agitates certain zones, particularly afflicting his left hand and arm.
What does this fascination say to us (or rather say to me), this fascination which has made me spend so much time describing a simple gesture, and try to be faithful to the effect that it has had on me? And is it even a gesture? Should we not speak instead of a gap, a disturbance, a residue, even if there is clearly something that is associated with this body, and which permits me to speak of such a unique, particular acting style? What I have highlighted (and replayed in my memory) is visibly an automatism (whether conscious or not), typical of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s acting performance – in this scene, but there is undoubtedly a number of other examples – which points to the nature of the characters that he has often incarnated, with this slightly unhinged quality they have, this dandyish nervousness, this detached stiffness, this allure of a frightened zombie, saddled with a faint “motor” malfunction, a non-accord between the “acting”, the pose and the body. This gesture made by the left hand is possibly the result of instructions given to him by Godard, Truffaut or Eustache (“Jean-Pierre, that won’t do, find something to prevent your left hand from shaking in the frame”), but it has never been, it is quite clear, entirely mastered. And it is this ambivalence, this indecidability which prevents me from seeing something else when I see these scenes, and which makes me follow, in each of his films, even if I do it a little nonchalantly, like a familiar anchoring point, my “Léaud’s left hand”.
Beyond this personal obsession, it is a particular trait, or even a specificity of certain actors and the style of the nouvelle vague, which play with and in this gap (and no-one better than Léaud illustrates this exception). In all these actors, who are often asked, it would appear, to do very little, we at once find – condensed, even if it is in the form of a controlled infraction – the mechanical indifference of Bressonian models, the documentary naturalism of cinéma-vérité, a raw, young, amateur energy, and a finely controlled spontaneity. What we see here is Léaud the actor and Paul the character talking with a girl, Madeleine/Chantal, both of whom are speaking in person, in their flesh, and this gap produced by the hand gives me, in an even more precise and poignant manner, the presence of the filming, its incision in the unpredictable time of its recording. This detail that touched me, pricked me, gazed at me, that evening, comprises all this.
This detail, this hand gesture, I received it, or encountered it, as I was saying, for the first time when seated in the first row of a Toronto cinema. The perception of this detail has awakened this other detail, frequently remarked upon, in The Mother and the Whore, and has enhanced it in turn. Of course, these are details that I have been able to verify, re-watch, present to my students, thanks to a series of digital transfers (I have the good fortune of “possessing” this film, just as I possess this gesture inside me), which have allowed me to re-shape them, give them a more solid basis in the gallery of my memory (another cinephile, one who wasn’t an old fogey like me, could no doubt make a little compilation of these images and put it on YouTube, sharing it like any number of fan-films that have chosen the nouvelle vague as a fetish object). And who knows, perhaps Pierre Bismuth will one day deign to follow Léaud’s left hand in order to retrace its gyrations on a pane of plexiglass (I promised myself to send him a copy of this book).
Translated by Daniel Fairfax. This text originally appeared in French in André Habib, La Main gauche de Jean-Pierre Léaud, © Les Éditions du Boréal, 2015. All rights reserved