A new series devoted to the actors and actresses who inspire me to continue watching and writing about the movies. Without these stars, cinema would be a little less bearable.
If you asked a group of cinephiles who their favorite French New Wave icon is, the amount of answers, unsurprisingly, would be wide and varied. Some of the “out there” members of this voting bloc might go with a quirky choice such as A Woman is a Woman star Jean-Claude Brialy. For the most part, however, a good majority of the votes would belong to Jean-Luc Godard’s muse (and wife for a brief period of time) Anna Karina and the sexy, rugged beacon of 60’s masculinity Jean-Paul Belmondo. As much as I love the above choices, for some time now, my heart has belonged to one New Wave icon alone: Jean-Pierre Léaud.
To the casual filmgoer, he may only be familiar as the troubled and misguided youth in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, easily the greatest film about childhood ever made, but he actually had, and continues to have, a long and successful career after that film. I would argue, in fact, that Léaud, not Belmondo or Karina, was the ultimate New Wave actor. Although not theatrically trained, he possessed a certain type of naturalism that worked magically with the sort of world the French New Wave (and other highly respected European auteurs) sought to create. And was he ever popular: between 1959 and 1973, he worked with cinematic giants such as François Truffaut, Godard, Jacques Rivette, Jean Eustache, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci. Who besides Nicole Kidman can boast that wide of a variety of auteurs in such a short period?
One of the reasons Léaud was so popular with all of these directors was the fact that he was basically a blank canvas to be used in any way the director wanted. That’s not necessarily a slight against him; actually, it’s one of the things I find most fascinating about him as an actor. Armed with an array of mannerisms, both vocal (a tendency to shout at the camera like an impassioned politician) and physical (you could really make a drinking game out of the number of times he runs his fingers through his hair in any given movie), that would limit most actors, Léaud was able to use them to his advantage. I still marvel at the way the same boy who appeared so down-trodden and hopeless in The 400 Blows grew up to become both the happy-go-lucky youth in Stolen Kisses and the radical, blindingly head-strong Communist in La Chinoise.
The dichotomy between the Truffuat Léaud and the Godard Léaud is perhaps one of the most speculated about portions of his filmography. I once read somewhere that Léaud saw Truffaut as his father and Godard as his uncle and, judging by his appearances in each of their films, that analogy makes sense in more ways than one. Truffaut often cast him as an extension of himself, a hopeless romantic searching for the perfect love in an imperfect world, and you can almost see his role for Léaud as a way of “teaching” him life lessons that a father should. In Antoine et Colette, it is all about the pain of unrequited love and, although this one may hurt, there are plenty of other fish in the sea. Bed and Board, the fourth installment of the Antoine Doinel series, seems to be showing him that relationships are never easy and comfortable grooves are never permanent. Godard, on the other hand, was the cool uncle showing Léaud things that his father wouldn’t find appropriate. Masculin féminin seems to be a fun, almost light springboard to the radical politics that invaded both their later collaborations and personal lives. Week End finds Léaud dressed up in Napoleonic garb reciting endless political nonsense in a field where no one can hear him, something Truffaut, no doubt, would have found too preposterous for him to do in one of his films.
What is remarkable about Léaud and his career is that even after fifty years in the business, we know relatively nothing about his personal life. There are no major biographies on him and even minor glimpses into his life have been prevented from going public (all of his correspondence with Truffaut was noticeably absent in a publication from a few years ago). This makes him all the more fascinating because the only way we can glean anything from him is through his performances. As a director’s lump of clay, however, to mold into whatever he needs for the film, we do not really get a sense of who Léaud is on screen either. Therefore, Jean-Pierre Léaud is one of the few movie stars who is completely impenetrable. Some may find this lack of connection off-putting, but I find this rarity to be something that deserves praise and contemplation. And in the age of digital media, will we ever find a star as completely guarded as Jean-Pierre Léaud again?