Wednesday, May 16, 2007
This month marks the 48th anniversary of the premiere of Francois Truffaut's first feature film, THE 400 BLOWS, at the Cannes Film Festival. It is hard to believe that the saga of Antoine Doinel began nearly fifty years ago as Truffaut's films still retain all of their freshness and emotional pull even in today's overwhelmingly hectic world.
Truth be told if I had to pick a series of films for my imaginary desert island it would be Truffaut's Doinel films, that began with THE 400 BLOWS and ended with 1979's LOVE ON THE RUN. Truffaut is my favorite director and his Doinel films feel more like members of my family rather than just fading pieces of celluloid.
Truffaut was only 26 when he began filming THE 400 BLOWS with his 14 year old star, Jean Pierre Leaud. The Leaud collaboration would continue through nearly the rest of Truffauts life with Jean Pierre becoming his greatest discovery, surrogate son, and screen stand in to Francois.
THE 400 BLOWS tells the story of young, troubled and attention starved Antoine Doinel. Doinel is one of the great characters in cinema history and Jean Pierre Leaud is one of the great actors. Based on Truffaut himself, we watch as Doinel is systematically and emotionally abandoned by his neglectful parents and a corrupt school system.
Truffaut was already a well known and controversial critic when THE 400 BLOWS premiered and won the Golden Palm at Cannes. Truffaut would also be awarded the best director prize and he would end up being nominated for an Oscar for his remarkable screenplay, which he had based on a short story that he had written in the early fifties.
THE 400 BLOWS is one of the most perfect films ever made. From the iconic and groundbreaking opening shots of Paris to hearing the first notes of Jean Constantin's lovely score, Truffaut announces himself immediately as a director of massive importance. THE 400 BLOWS would be as far away from the stuffy studio made French films that Truffaut had rallied against so much in his, sometimes savage, reviews. Coupled with Henri Decae's cinematography and one of the most haunting last shots in film history, THE 400 BLOWS is one of the finest debut films ever made and it marked the arrival of the heart of the French New Wave.
THE 400 BLOWS was made as a stand alone film, Truffaut apparently had no plans to continue Doinel's story, but when he was asked to deliver a short for the anthology film LOVE AT TWENTY in 1962 he asked Leaud if he felt like giving it another go.
The short ANTOINE AND COLETTE was said to be possibly Truffaut's favorite of all of his films. The Golden Bear nominated film presents us with Doinel in his late teens, lonely and living on his own. He sees and becomes infatuated with a girl named Colette, played by the lovely Marie-France Pisier in her debut, and begins dating her. If THE 400 BLOWS chronicled Doinel's struggle with his parents and school then ANTOINE AND COLETTE introduces the two themes that would occupy the rest of the series, Antoine's relations with women and his search for surrogate parents.
ANTOINE AND COLETTE is a melancholic little film that benefits greatly from Georges Delerue's tender score and the remarkable black and white photography of Raoul Coutard. Truffaut makes it clear that even though Doinel is again abandoned by someone he loves in the form of Colette at least he is emotionally adopted by her parents, which gives the film and Doinel some well earned hope.
Throughout the early and mid sixties Leaud became one of the French New Wave's most recognizable faces and he worked with everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Jean Cocteau. He also became increasingly political and idealistic and was at the front of the protest lines in 1968. Bertolucci would use clips of Leaud protesting to great effect in THE DREAMERS a few years back and it is Leaud's own changing values and the sense of strife that was plaguing France in 68 that sets the scene for the next Doinel film.
STOLEN KISSES is considered by many to be the masterpiece of the Antoine Doinel series. It is my second favorite after BED AND BOARD and it contains some of the series lightest and most heartfelt moments. For me it remains an undeniably important film in that it introduced the world to the heartbreaking and mesmerizing Claude Jade. Truffaut fell in love with Jade making the film and I fall in love with her every time I watch it. Her opening shot in the film, peering through a window at Antoine, is one of my favorite shots in any film.
STOLEN KISSES is a sneaky film. Dedicated to the great cinema lover Henri Langlois, it is one of the most subtle revolutionary films ever made. Seemingly apolitical the film was clearly influenced by the problems plaguing France and the increasing divisions between the young generation and old. A key to Leaud and Truffaut's views comes with an almost throw away line of dialogue mentioning how important making love is. STOLEN KISSES would mark a shift in the series from being solely about Antoine Doinel to being about Antoine and Claude Jade's Christine.
The film was the first of the series shot in color and Denys Clerval's eye popping photography of Paris and various interiors make this one of the most beautiful films of the late sixties. Clerval would also shoot Truffaut's striking MISSISSIPPI MERMAID the following year but would never work with Truffaut again after 1969. The score this time, featuring some of the best music of the series, is by the great Antoine Duhamel. Duhamel is one of France's most underrated composers and his work on a few of Truffaut's films is especially noteworthy. Unfortunately the two would have a falling out on the next Doinel film and would never work together again. A recent import cd of Duhamel's scores is available from DustyGroove and is highly recommended.
STOLEN KISSES can't be brought up without mentioning the amazing Delphine Seyrig. One of the most beautiful and best actresses of her generation, the much admired Seyrig delivers one of her best performances in STOLEN KISSES. Her untimely death in 1990, due to lung cancer, robbed French cinema of one of its great actors.
1970's BED AND BOARD is the series' real conclusion. Telling the tale of Antoine and Christine's first year of marriage, Truffaut clearly designed the film to end the series. As I mentioned it is my favorite of the Doinel cycle and one of the most underrated films of the seventies. Leaud and Jade form one of the great couples in screen history in this film and the film's overwhelmingly natural feel makes it a unique one in all of cinema.
BED AND BOARD marked the first time Truffaut worked with Nestor Almendros. Francois had seen and been so overwhelmed by Almendros' work with Eric Rohmer that he hired him not only for BED AND BOARD but also THE WILD CHILD which was released the same year. The two would work together five more times, including Truffaut's final film 1983's CONFIDENTIALLY YOURS.
BED AND BOARD ends the Doinel series for me. The final shots of Antoine and Christine with their newborn at the beginning of their lives together gives closure to the set of films and Truffaut, Leaud and Jade knew it. It is a perfect final film for the characters so it makes it all the more mystifying why 1979's LOVE ON THE RUN exists.
I don't mean to be too hard on the 'official' final film to the Doinel series. I like the film very much and can watch it on its own but I don't like to connect it with the other films. I need Antoine Doinel and Christine Darbon to be together and seeing them separated in LOVE ON THE RUN is depressing stuff. The final film is largely made up of many shots of the other Doinel films of the past and it continues the now central story of Doinel and his relationships with different women. It's an emotionally bankrupt film and one of Truffaut's weakest. Truffaut himself regretted making it and even though it contains some sublime moments, such as the great title song and the returning Pisier, it isn't on the same level as the other films.
Truffaut would complete just three films after LOVE ON THE RUN before passing away at the tragically young age of 52 in 1984 due to a brain tumor. Godard, whom had famously fallen out with Truffaut and Leaud in the seventies, would say that French Cinema 'lost it's protection' when Francois died. He was right...Truffaut and the emotional weight his best films carried were always a reminder of cinema's power to help, heal and affect people's lives in a positive way.
Claude Jade died six months ago and I am still shook up about it. She had just published her well received memoirs in France and had also recorded some audio commentaries for the French Doinel dvds, which I hope to hear one day. She was the first person I ever posted about on this blog, I love and miss the warmth she brought to the screen and will be writing more on her in the future.
Leaud will turn 63 in a couple of weeks. He has had one of the most remarkable careers in French screen history with over 80 films to his credit, many with some of the most important European directors in all of cinema. His work as Antoine Doinel has perhaps overshadowed his career and the fact that he is a fine actor with a capacity to do any kind of role. Still I can't imagine that Leaud minds being recognized as one of the most famous characters in screen history.
Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Leaud gave cinema a really remarkable gift with the five Antoine Doinel films. They are unique in film history and a testament to creation and collaboration. Most importantly they reminded us that cinema, long the most under-appreciated art form, should be valued as something that has the capability to remind people of the importance of love, forgiveness and acceptance.
The Antoine Doinel series is available from Criterion in an expansive box set featuring beautiful prints, vintage documantaries, commentaries, a book and much more. I personally think that, along with the Rohmer box, it is the best Criterion release available.
Many books and articles are available on Truffaut that delve deeper into the Doinel series. This was just my small little tribute to a group of films that changed not only the way I felt about movies but life in general.