The pain of adolescence -- and artistic need in a cruel, unaccommodating world -- drives much of Truffaut's breakthrough feature-film debut, 1959's The 400 Blows, one of the most important and brilliant of the early French New Wave films. It wasn't just influential, as were many of the New Wave films; it was also enjoyable, even in its original bittersweet filtering of nostalgia. But Truffaut didn't stop there; once again doing what few directors had done before him, he took the semi-autobiographical story of Antoine Doinel and expanded it into what would become a five-film cycle over a 20-year period: the short Antoine and Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).
The Criterion Collection recently released a five-DVD disc set, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, offering viewers a comprehensive look at the life of not only the character Doinel but also of Truffaut (1932-1984). For Truffaut fans who followed the cycle over the years, it must be an amazing chance to re-think that cycle after almost literally having grown up with Doinel. It's also a chance to contrast Truffaut's dedication to this semi-autobiographical period while creating such critically acclaimed works as Jules and Jim (1962) and Day for Night (1973). For viewers new to the series, it might feel more like a curiosity, a novelty -- once you get past the brilliance of The 400 Blows. And while it's certainly an instructive and immensely helpful series to study, one can't help get the feeling that Truffaut became trapped in his own cycle, struggling to make sense of his own narrative desires while working out the issues from his own youth and young adulthood. (No wonder Steven Spielberg, himself obsessed with adolescence, cast Truffaut in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
The further the adventures of Antoine Doinel progress, the more they seem to regress, the less interested we become. From the outset of The 400 Blows, Truffaut makes clear that Doinel is not a purely sympathetic character, and yet despite his many foibles -- liar, cheat, thief, bungler, escapee -- Doinel hooks us early and drags us kicking and screaming through the film. Thanks to Truffaut's camera and script, and Jean-Pierre's naturalistic performance, we cannot take our eyes off Doinel or avoid praying for his salvation. That's one of the many charms of The 400 Blows: that Truffaut can create so flawed a character and still ally us with him.
But from there, the Doinel cycle spins rather haphazardly along. Two years later, along with several other internationally known directors, Truffaut served up a 30-minute short, Antoine and Colette, for a collection titled Love at 20. Also shot in black-and-white, Antoine and Colette peeks in at Doinel's first clumsy stabs at romance with the expected disastrous results. It's a revealing and entertaining piece and continues at least one noble thread that will snake throughout: what a pain in the ass it is to become an adult.
As we continue to follow the Doinel series, however, the idea itself starts to feel like a drag, even when Truffaut injects little moments of sweetness, humor and insight along the way. Part of the problem is Jean-Pierre Léaud, who may well have been a victim of his own success in The 400 Blows. In that film, Léaud was nothing short of a revelation; the 14-year-old, who had traveled to Paris by train for a screen test when he read an ad in his hometown newspaper, blew away Truffaut during an interview (captured on the first disc). In fact, if you match that interview/screen test with the film's famous interview with the psychologist, you practically cannot tell the difference.
There is a reason for this; Truffaut instantly saw much of his young self in Léaud, and the beginnings of a collaboration took root. In fact, lines in the scene with the psychologist were outlined by Léaud and Truffaut, who encouraged Léaud to not only share his own life experience as part of the monologue but also to improvise. The result is one of the least self-conscious performances by a child actor you will ever find. Throughout the scene, Léaud alternates his gaze from the desk to the psychologist, depending on his level of embarrassment at the question, and fidgets his hands, often unconsciously wiping off the desk as he recalls the unhappiness of his family life and admits and sometimes defends his transgressions. (For a recent comparison, check out Keisha-Castle Hughes' sparkling performance in Whale Rider. As good as it is, it doesn't even come close.) Truffaut often had to correct those who believed the Doinel cycle was mostly autobiographical, insisting it more and more became half his story and half Léaud's.
Not that Léaud's performance is the entire film, either. With The 400 Blows, Truffaut successfully introduced what became hallmarks of the French New Wave: the use of location photography in defiance of studio settings, the personalization (sometimes to a fault) of narrative, and what critic David Thomson accurately calls "offhand lyricism." The influence of the New Wave is too great to even begin to quantify here, but much of it springs from Truffaut's superb debut.
Still, Truffaut's decision to expand the film into a cycle would have been more impressive if Léaud's acting matched Truffaut's often formidable storytelling skills, even if they aren't on full display the rest of the way. Part of it is the set-up; once Truffaut takes Doinel out of childhood and pushes him further and further into adulthood, the excuses for his bumbling behavior -- his complete lack of vocational skills as a struggling writer, his infidelity to his wife Christine, his denial of his parents -- the less interesting he becomes. Léaud doesn't even seem capable of rising to Truffaut's comedic challenge in Stolen Kisses, which arguably is the most overrated film of the set if still enjoyable at times. In everything after Antoine and Colette, you sense Doinel trying to act, and we're worse for it. Some have called Léaud one of France's great actors of his day, but if this is an example of his later work, that praise is mysterious. Even The New York Times' Vincent Canby, who otherwise gushed over Stolen Kisses, couldn't help but note the lead's weaknesses: "Léaud, on the other hand, is somewhat off-putting, but I'm not sure if this is because of Léaud himself, who has not grown up with particular physical grace, or because of the way the role is written. There are times when Truffaut seems to be confessing to more sins than are really necessary."
Which is not to dismiss Stolen Kisses entirely. Truffaut deftly touches on the search for identity, the jumble of art, life and love. Doinel is still a loner, a rebel -- the anti-hero as buffoon. As he bungles his way into a job as a private eye, taking up an undercover job as a shoe salesman to figure out why his client, the shop owner, is so dislikable, Doinel becomes lovestruck by the owner's beautiful wife in a chance meeting at the store. His observations to the agency's secretary by phone that night quickly shift from an objective report to an homage:
"I met Mrs. Tabard. She has an enchanting voice and speaks perfect English."
"Describe her for me."
(Looking heavenward) "She's an extraordinary woman! A bit mysterious, a bit sweet. Her nose is slightly turned up, but straight and full of character."
"That I don't know."
"I'm asking you how tall she is."
"About five foot five without heels."
"What shape is her face?"
"A perfect oval. That is, a slightly triangular oval. But her skin is radiant, as if illuminated from within!"
"We want a report, not a declaration of love. Good night."
Never send a writer to do a detective's job.
It takes an affair with the boss' wife, it seems, to coax his intended girlfriend Christine to come to her senses and finally reach out to Antoine at the end of the film, which sets up the challenges of domesticity that permeate Bed and Board. Where Stolen Kisses shows Antoine learning to fit into life after disastrous military service and finding a woman to love, Bed and Board shows him struggling with what to do once he has found her. In Christine, he has the perfect wife; the daughter of a middle-class family, she is beautiful, a violin teacher. (In the Doinel cycle, if there's not a love of music, there's a love of film or a love of literature, or all of the above.) Unfortunately, Antoine is the only one (audience included) who doesn't realize how good he's got it. He's still a clumsy professional, this time a florist who dyes his flowers in search of the perfect shade of red. And when Christine gives birth to a son, well, Antoine can't handle it and inexplicably falls for a Japanese woman after starting yet another meaningless job. (It's a nice touch by Truffaut that Antoine's job is to watch toy boats maneuver around in a model-scale river -- floating aimlessly about, always threatening to run into each other.)
So, for no other reason than lack of direction, Antoine stumbles into an affair with a woman he is barely attracted to (can hardly stand, really), while Christine impatiently waits for him to get his shit together. (She's not alone.) By the end of Bed and Board, we have no idea whether they will reunite, only that Antoine will continue his trudge down the lonely darkened streets of Paris -- and life. He is on his way to becoming a published author of a memoir, Les Salades de L'amour (Love and Other Troubles), but will pay for his art.
(There's no coincidence that while the disc for The 400 Blows features two commentary options: one from cinema professor Brian Stonehill and one from longtime Truffaut friend Robert Lachenay, none of the subsequent films receive any commentary options. But in an exquisitely packaged set, it should be noted that the fifth disc, Les Salades de L'amour, is loaded with extras, including the early short film Les Mistons.)
Truffaut tried to wrap things up in 1979 with Love on the Run, but instead left things rather untidy. It is supposed to be a summation, a reach for closure, but in reality the film drowns in its own limitations. Throughout the film, Antoine reunites with past loves, with Truffaut peppering the screen with countless flashbacks. And so a series that is predicated on nostalgia ends with a film that is in itself nostalgic about the previous 20 years. How odd.
Even Truffaut conceded the inferiority of the final film.
"To tell the truth, I wasn't happy with Love on the Run," Truffaut told Rene Michelems on a 1980 episode of the French TV program Cinescope included on the film's disc. "This film was troubling for me. People may well enjoy it, but I'm not happy with it. It doesn't seem like a real film to me. The experimental elements in the film are too pronounced. A film often has an experimental feel in the beginning, but by the end you hope it feels like a real object, a real film, so you forget that it's an experiment."
"But in defense of your own movie, it's a kind of diary on film," Michelems says. "You watch a character through his evolution."
"Yes, but does he really evolve?" Truffaut asks, himself a former film critic for Arts and Cahiers du Cinema. "I felt I wasn't successful in making him evolve. The character started out somewhat autobiographical, but over time it drew further away from me. I never wanted to give him ambition, for example. I wonder if he's not too frozen, like a cartoon character. You know, Mickey Mouse can't grow old.
"Perhaps the Doinel cycle is the story of a failure," Truffaut concludes, "even if each film on its own is enjoyable and fun to watch."
The adventures of Antoine Doinel is also a story about the hunger to pursue art despite the consequences of that pursuit. Francois Truffaut proved, intentionally or not, that even art isn't perfect. Toward the end of Love on the Run, a fleeting lover admonishes Doinel, "You can't make everyone pay for your rotten childhood."