The French New Wave was a film movement in early 1960’s France that broke all of the conventions of traditional movie making. Sick of prestigious studio films whose sole aim was to make money rather than present a distinct point of view, the New Wave filmmakers created films they wanted to see. Influenced by the Italian neo-realism movement, these directors worked outside the confines of a studio set, shooting right on the streets of Paris with natural lighting and handheld cameras. And Jean-Pierre Léaud was there right from the start: he was 14 when he played Antoine Doinel, the troubled and misguided youth in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, easily the greatest film about childhood ever made. The image of the New Wave, at least to the established guard, was that of a “youth gone wild”--both Truffaut and Godard, the movement’s two iconoclasts, were in their late 20’s/early 30’s when they began making films--and Léaud became a child of this New Wave. Not theatrically trained, he possessed a certain type of naturalism that worked magically with the sort of world the French New Wave sought to create. With no prior experience, he learned as he went, completely at the will of the director. And was he ever popular: between 1959 and 1973, he worked with cinematic giants such as 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 (Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame obviously took notes on the way he runs his fingers through his hair in most of his films), that would limit most actors, Léaud was able to use them to his advantage. These mannerisms are present in nearly all of his films, yet he creates radically different characters that work in their respective film. With the director providing a strong enough context for Léaud and his characteristics, he was able to play both the happy-go-lucky youth in Stolen Kisses and the radical, blindingly head-strong Communist in La Chinoise without anyone questioning his acting ability.
His lack of pretense made him the perfect actor for an auterial-driven movement like the French New Wave (and the period of European filmmaking that followed). Films like Godard's experimental Le Gai Savoir and Pasolini's Porcile are not actor-driven pieces and only require a presence like Léaud's to deliver the director's true message. With Le Gai Savoir, he is literally nothing more than a figurehead as Godard's infamous "return to zero" abandons all notions of not only plot but sets, props and normal sound cues. The film is fascinating in parts, frustrating in others, but, outside of maybe a single one-liner, Léaud's performance is hardly the first thing you think of in hindsight. Porcile is a bit kinder to Léaud in terms of giving him a plot to work around, however, Pasolini's desire to shock is the real star of the film; the idea of a fresh-faced young kid like Léaud being a sexual deviant is explored far more than Léaud's character itself. How many actors of Léaud's generation, both American and European, can you imagine regularly allowing themselves to be reduced to mere decoration for a director's often times uncompromising and controversial vision? Very few, that's how many. Even Léaud's compatriots from the early days of the New Wave, like Belmondo, Karina and Seberg, had moved on to more mainstream pictures by this time.
The dichotomy between the Truffaut 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. You can almost see his role for Léaud as a way of “teaching” him life lessons that a father should. In Antoine et Colette, Truffaut is teaching Léaud about the pain of unrequited love. The rejection may hurt, he seems to be saying, but there are plenty of 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.
Over the years, Léaud found ways to subtly portray each of these men who were so instrumental in shaping his career. As a child of the New Wave, he was often called upon in his later career to portray a figurehead, a relic even, of that era. His identity was so tied up with the New Wave, Léaud's presence alone could immediately bring the viewer into the era. In Bertolucci's 1972 film Last Tango in Paris, Léaud portrayed the boyfriend of Maria Schneider before she hooked up with Marlon Brando, a New Wave filmmaker embarking on a new project. If anything, his performance here seems to be a riff on the Godard persona. Léaud's character is completely pre-occupied with his film and everything in his life comes second to capturing his footage his precise way. Many of his conversations with Schneider end with Léaud launching into a long, rambling monologue about the nature of cinema and its connection to love and life, which sounds exactly like something Godard, using Léaud as his stand in, would have made him recite in one of their films together. In short, the character is a bit of a jerk who holds film and intellectualism above everything in his life--even personal relationships. The reason for this blunt characterization may lie in the fact that, as Truffaut hinted in his correspondence from the time, there might have a riff between the two over some personal matter.
When Léaud took on Truffaut in Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep, he was considerably kinder in his portrayal. The two of them always had a complicated, complex, indescribable relationship, one that extends beyond the typical director/muse relationship. After The 400 Blows, Truffaut, for all intents and purposes, became Léaud's father and they became mutually dependent on each other--both financially and emotionally. The two became so intertwined (at least in my mind) that, looking at pictures of them over the years, they almost seem to have merged into one indiscernible being, Persona style. When Truffaut died in 1983, Léaud was a complete wreck. Irma Vep seems to be his way of both working through his feelings about Truffaut's death while also honoring his memory in an interesting way. The director he plays here is a New Wave filmmaker who hasn't been successful, either financially or artistically, in a number of years. His new project is a remake of the 1915 silent serial Irma Vep and, as he has decided to shoot the film without sound, he is quite excited about the project's possibilities. As the film is shooting, however, people around him are not enthused about what has been shot; it looks like this project will add to his list of recent disappointments. The parallels to Truffaut's later career are unmistakable: after redefining cinema in the early 60's, he spent the rest of his career defending his work when he moved beyond that style of filmmaking. But the relationship between Léaud and Maggie Cheung, the actress chosen to portray Irma, is perhaps the most touching aspect of this homage to Truffaut. The two of them have only known each other for a short period of time, yet an almost unspeakable bond develops between them. There is no outpouring of emotion but, rather, a silent trust that can only come about between a director and his actor. When Léaud is carted off to a rest home after a mental breakdown, Cheung is genuinely saddened at the loss of this mentor.
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 today’s digital age, will we ever find a star completely guarded as Jean-Pierre Léaud again?