Say it isn't so: Jean-Pierre Leaud at 75

  • by Sura Wood
  • Tuesday June 25, 2019
Share this Post:
Jean-Pierre Leaud in writer-director Albert Serra's "The Death of Louis XIV" (2016). Photo: Courtesy BAMPFA
Jean-Pierre Leaud in writer-director Albert Serra's "The Death of Louis XIV" (2016). Photo: Courtesy BAMPFA

In the wrenching final freeze-frame of Francois Truffaut's 1959 masterpiece "The 400 Blows," a 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Leaud turned toward the camera and became the face of youthful alienation and the French New Wave. It was the first but not the last time Leaud would embody Truffaut's alter ego Antoine Doinel, a lost "eternal boy" unwanted by his parents, seen at the end of the semi-autobiographical film darting back and forth on a cloudy beach on the verge of an uncertain future, incarceration or worse. Similarly troubled childhoods forged a bond between actor and director and an alchemy that's reflected onscreen. "Francois was like a father to me," Leaud said in a 2014 interview. "I was a bad boy. I had been expelled from 12 schools in a row. It was absolutely Providence I got to do the film and find myself at the Cannes Festival."

Things didn't work out too badly for the aimless juvenile delinquent portrayed in the movie, either; after all, he grew up to become a revered French film critic and filmmaker. But for those who only remember that last shot of Leaud frozen in time — one of the most indelible images in cinema — it may come as a surprise that the actor and legend of the Nouvelle Vague is now 75, a senior citizen with a list of impressive credits accrued over the ensuing decades.

Jean-Pierre Leaud in director Jean-Luc Godards La Chinoise. Photo: Courtesy BAMPFA  

By turns petulant, self-important, callow, impetuously romantic, and idealistic in his movie roles, he was one lucky dog in real life. "I had no technique, and have none now," Leaud once conceded. "The only thing that counts for me is the camera." Utterly relaxed onscreen as only a true creature of the cinema could be, he was sought after by a roster of leading auteurs that includes Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Olivier Assayas, Jean Eustache, Catherine Breillat, Bernardo Bertolucci, and of course, Truffaut, the director with whom he's most closely identified. "We operated in a kind of complicity," Leaud recalled after Truffaut's death in 1984.

Some of those collaborations are showcased in "Jean-Pierre Leaud at 75," a retrospective series at BAMPFA, which opens July 4 and runs through the end of August. It sketches Leaud's trajectory, ending with his relatively recent appearance in Spanish writer-director Albert Serra's "The Death of Louis XIV" (2016). Nearly overtaken by a voluminous, double-wide wig, he plays the ailing Sun King in his waning days, spending the bulk of the movie on his death bed in a dimly lit chamber.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. After his auspicious breakthrough in "The 400 Blows," Leaud reprised the role of Doinel in various stages of maturity or lack thereof in several subsequent films made by Truffaut between 1962-79: "Antoine and Colette," an anthology segment about the anguish of unrequited first love; "Stolen Kisses," which finds Doinel wandering the streets of Paris looking for love and a job, not necessarily in that order; "Bed and Board," where he's an inconstant married man of the petit-bourgeoisie, juggling an affair; and "Love on the Run," the bittersweet final chapter in the saga, in which a 30-ish Doinel remains in a permanent state of arrested development. "There's a lot of childhood left in all men," observed Truffaut. "But in him, it's more so."

Godard, who saw Leaud as an emblem of late 1960s youth rebellion and malaise, cast him in eight movies. "Masculine Feminine," which has been described as a film about "the children of Marx and Coca Cola by the child of Brecht and Hollywood," and "La Chinoise," meditating on the European Left and a group of "petit Maoists" playing at revolution who may become the terrorists of tomorrow, are among three shown here.

Jean-Pierre Leaud in director Jean Eustaches The Mother and the Whore. Photo: Courtesy BAMPFA  

Olivier Assasyas featured a frazzled, middle-aged Leaud in one of this writer's favorites, "Irma Vep." In this zesty 1996 film Assayas merged his fondness for Hong Kong action flicks with a film-within-a-film conceit that involves the "remake" of "Les vampires," Louis Feuillade's classic silent French serial. The magnificent Maggie Cheung, a kinetic, sexually magnetic presence slinking around in a black latex catsuit, plays both herself and the heroine of the disaster-plagued production. She wreaks havoc on the crew and the neurotic, has-been director, personified by a beleaguered, perpetually cranky Leaud.

Leaud was born to play Alexandre, the narcissistic refugee from the 1960s sexual revolution who whiles away hours in Parisian cafes when not enmeshed in a m´┐Żnage a trois or flitting between amorous assignations in Jean Eustache's first feature, "The Mother and the Whore." The three-and-a-half-hour opus, a raw, verbose, take-no-prisoners exploration of love and sex, scandalized the 1973 Cannes Film Festival where it was awarded the Grand Prix and divided the critics. One declared it "an insult to the nation"; another called it "a Himalaya of pretention"; Truffaut and members of the French New Wave sang its praises.

"Just every now and then, a film rises up as abrupt, elemental, and wounding as rocks," writes film historian David Thomson. "'The Mother and the Whore' relies on naked performances and is more shocking than 'Last Tango' or nearly any 'sexy' film you can think of. It is a dark, vaguely perceived beast on the edge of polite society. Beware."

July 4-Aug. 30.