With the 69th Cannes Film Festival just around the corner (May 11-May 22), comes the news that French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud will be receiving an honorary Palme d’Or during its closing ceremony. The award comes in recognition of one of the most impressive careers of any actor in the history of French cinema, as well as of course, cinema in general.
His very image, along with those of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, is one of the most representative of the revolutionary cinematic movement known as the French New Wave. Indeed, he juxtaposed significantly the unflinching machismo of Belmondo with a more restrained and, at times, vain brand of sensibility, that would add a fascinating charisma and depth to many of some of the most memorable characters of the French (and European in general) cinema of the sixties and seventies – not least of all the ongoing collaboration with Truffaut on their creation of Antoine Doinel, first introduced in that masterwork The 400 Blows (1959).
Given the significance of the award, it feels right to pay tribute to Léaud’s film by shining a light on some of his most memorable works to date. We have chosen 7 of his finest performances to highlight – which might have been more had we decided to go ahead and quite every one of his lead turns in his collaborations with Truffaut and Godard (instead, we only made one, meaningful exception). And we recommend that every one of these titles, which span from a period of time between 1959 and 1991, be researched and discovered, or re-discovered, as soon as possible.
#1 – THE 400 BLOWS (1959) by Francois Truffaut
The 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut is forever recognized as one of the founding film of the revolutionary cinematic movement known as the French New Wave. Alongside Godard’s Breathless (which was incidentally co-written by Godard), it pretty much updated cinematic essence, style and context as it was known in its traditionalist and somewhat updated form. Yet, compared to Breathless, The 400 Blows is certainly more aesthetically pleasing and soft-hearted, despite its immediate charge. All these are qualities conveyed in the central performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud, without whom it’s hard to imagine the film to have been quickly considered as one of the best ever made.
Léaud is strangely detached, and yet simultaneously expressive. His Antoine Doinel is one of the most three dimensional child characters ever committed to the big screen. Yet, despite the natural sympathetic reaction he inspires, the nature of the film doesn’t allow for it to be pleasant in any direct and conventional way.
The 400 Blows was a film of firsts. It was the first feature by Truffaut, and the beginning of the beautiful collaboration between him and Léaud. Indeed, one of the best, as well as one of the most personal. It is a widely known fact that The 400 Blows is Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical endeavour. But Doinel is ultimately a creation of both actor and filmmaker, and one that apparently started early in the process of the film’s production. The screen test was in fact worked into the film, and would become one of its most famous scenes – the conversation with the psychologist. The screen test was improvised.
The two would revisit Doinel four times over the following twenty years and Stolen Kisses (1968) in particular would become another five star classic.