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First, the facts. Bed and Board (1970), known as Domicile conjugal in its native France, is the fourth of five movies about Antoine Doinel, one of the most enduring and endearing characters in modern film. All were directed by Franois Truffaut and star Jean-Pierre Laud as the protagonist, who grows - like the actor himself - from early adolescence to adulthood over the course of the series. The most famous of the films is The 400 Blows (1959), which earned Truffaut the best director prize at Cannes and propelled the French New Wave to international renown. The next installment was the 1962 romance Antoine and Colette, a half-hour segment of an anthology film. Then came Stolen Kisses in 1968, followed by Bed and Board in 1970 and finally Love on the Run in 1979.
Those are the basics of the Antoine Doinel cycle, but the fun of the pictures is seeing how each one resonates as a stand-alone movie whether or not you've seen the others lately. Bed and Board is a perfect example. Antoine, who earns a living as a small-time florist, is married to Christine, a violin teacher. She's pregnant with their first child, and their household budget is tight. Antoine takes a new job with an American-owned hydraulics company - not because he knows a single thing about hydraulics, but because he and the English-speaking boss totally misunderstand each other when he comes in for an interview. Instead of dying flowers in the courtyard of his apartment building, Antoine now guides small radio-controlled boats around a scale-model waterway in the suburbs. He also meets interesting people, including an alluring Japanese woman named Kyoko, who tempts him into an affair that could disrupt his happy home beyond repair. This is a story you could love if you'd never seen a French film in your life.
Bed and Board is driven more by character than by plot, but Antoine and Christine have their share of dramatic moments. The birth of their son is a happy event, even if they immediately start quibbling about what to name him. Christine's discovery of her husband's affair with Kyoko, on the other hand, is a sad and angry event. Truffaut conveys its vast significance with two of the film's most extraordinary cinematic flourishes. The first takes place when Kyoko hides poetic love notes in flowers delivered to Antoine at work; he tries to get rid of them before going home, but somehow he still has them when he arrives there, and a little later the buds open into gorgeous blossoms - in a mere instant, as if some impossible magic were at work - and drop the incriminating messages almost literally into Christine's lap. The second occurs when Antoine gets home late from a tryst with his lover and finds his grieving wife dressed in lavish Japanese regalia, confronting him with a nightmare parody of the enticement that led him astray.
This is powerful stuff, but Truffaut was among the world's most good-spirited filmmakers, and he often lightens awful situations with unexpected humor. Even though Antoine keeps seeing Kyoko after Christine finds out about her, for instance, he discovers that intercontinental love is trickier than he expected. Kyoko speaks little French, he speaks even less Japanese, and their evenings together become interminable sessions of sitting, smiling, and failing at conversation, which bores both Antoine and Kyoko out of their wits. Antoine keeps slipping away and phoning Christine for comfort! In the contest between bourgeois contentment and extramarital adventuring, routine household pleasures turn out to have a great deal going for them.
A major asset of Bed and Board is its accurate reflection of urban textures and rhythms. As in Charles Dickens's novels, the main characters are always meeting up with a colorful roster of minor figures, each of whom has a distinctive bit of business to contribute: the waitress who hits on Antoine in the courtyard; the sponger who borrows money every chance he gets; the neighbor who hasn't left his apartment in years; the busy mom who never remembers to pay for her daughter's music lessons; the man nicknamed The Strangler because he stalks around the neighborhood so ominously; the punctual opera singer and his invariably tardy wife; and more. Each is a familiar type, yet each seems bracingly fresh in the lifelike milieu Truffaut creates for them. Like many Truffaut films, Bed and Board also has a few crafty jokes for the benefit of movie buffs - including the very last shot, which pokes gentle fun at the legendary freeze-frame that gives The 400 Blows it unforgettable conclusion.
Truffaut's lifelong passion for authenticity led him to shoot most of his pictures in real locations, so it's no surprise that Bed and Board gets much of its charm from beautifully observed details. What is surprising is that the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who worked often with Truffaut, wasn't entirely pleased with his work here. While it's true that Bed and Board looks a tad scruffier than such visually rich Truffaut-Almendros films as The Wild Child (1970) and The Story of Adele H (1975), it more than compensates for this with energy, mobility, and improvisational dash - the very qualities that distinguish all the greatest New Wave pictures. Enchanting colors kick in right after the credits, when we see Antoine transforming pretty white flowers into dazzling scarlet ones, and delicious contrasts emerge between the gritty look of the city where Antoine lives and the looser appearance of the suburbs where he steers his little boats at work.
The 400 Blows was Truffaut's first feature, and he never expected to follow it with even one sequel, much less four of them; several times he announced the end of the series, only to find Antoine reaching out to him once more. The character went through subtle changes, though. Like the filmmaker who dreamed him up, he was always more a misfit than a rebel - that was Truffaut's description - but while The 400 Blows was a semiautobiographical tale about a guy whose personality was very similar to Truffaut's own, in subsequent chapters he felt Antoine growing more distant from him, and he probably wouldn't have continued the series even if he hadn't died in 1984 at the tragically early age of fifty-two.
Be that as it may, the five-film Antoine Doinel cycle stands with the finest achievements of French cinema, as imposing in its way as ric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales (1963-72) and Jacques Rivette's Out One (1971) and even Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinma (1988-98). And it's easily the most entertaining of the bunch - rarely has a monument of culture been so light and lively on its feet. The story of Antoine Doinel is Truffaut's most generous legacy, and Bed and Board is one of its most sparkling installments.
Director: Franois Truffaut
Producer: Marcel Berbert
Screenplay: Franois Truffaut, Claude de Givray, Bernard Revon
Cinematographer: Nestor Almendros
Film Editing: Agns Guillemot
Music: Antoine Duhamel
Cast: Jean-Pierre Laud (Antoine Doinel), Claude Jade (Christine Darbon Doinel), Mademoiselle Hiroko (Kyoko), Barbara Laage (Monique), Danile Girard (Ginette), Claire Duhamel (Madame Darbon), Daniel Ceccaldi (Lucien Darbon), Daniel Boulanger (opera singer), Silvana Blasi (Silvana), Pierre Maguelon (Csarin's friend), Jacques Jouanneau (Csarin), Claude Vga (pseudo-strangler), Jacques Rispal (Monsieur Desbois), Jacques Robiolles (Jacques), Pierre Fabre (office employee), Christian de Tilliere (Baumel), Billy Kearns (Mr. Max), Annick Asty (Marianne's mother), Marianne Piketti (Marianne), Guy Pierault (TV repairman), Marie Dedieu (Marie), Marie Irakane (Madame Martin), Yvon Lec (contract worker), Menzer (little man), Christophe (Christophe).
by David Sterritt