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Hitchcock had Jimmy Stewart, then Cary Grant as his onscreen alter egos. Fellini had Marcello Mastroianni. But film's longest-running doppelganger combo was that of Francois Truffaut (1932-1984) and Jean-Pierre Laud. They met in the character of Antoine Doinel in the breakthrough film for each, The 400 Blows (1959, Les quatre cent coups), with Laud as the unhappy, unmanageable 14-year-old stand-in for Truffaut's younger self in the landmark autobiographical film depicting an unloved only child bouncing in and out of trouble and ending with the now classic freeze frame of Antoine alone on a beach, having more or less survived his childhood, wondering what would come next.
What came next, although Truffaut later wrote that he hadn't planned any further Doinel films, were four more over a 20-year span. After The 400 Blows came Truffaut's segment of the omnibus film Love at Twenty - Antoine et Colette (1962); Stolen Kisses (1968, Baisers voles); Bed & Board (1970, Domicile conjugal); and Love on the Run (1979, L'Amour en fuite), which takes Doinel through his late thirties. Laud, born in Paris in 1944 to a screenwriter father and an actress mother, is still active, having made more than 40 films. He actually made more films with Truffaut's contemporary, Jean-Luc Godard (nine), than with Truffaut. Yet it remains Doinel with which he is most identified. He remained close to Truffaut, who took the young man under his wing, rented him an apartment upstairs in the building that housed his film company, and gave him career advice for all Laud's film projects, not just Truffaut's.
Essentially, the Doinel films are about ways in which the young man grows up, and doesn't grow up, trying to stabilize his life with the right woman, but repeatedly sabotaging the very thing he wants most. He is, and remains, conflicted. Aware of the differences in Laud and himself despite the shared elements of their unruly respective childhoods, Truffaut recalled that his own alienation resulted in shyness and a certain cunning, whereas young Laud's was more externalized. In today's terminology, he "acted out." Truffaut's observation that of the five films Stolen Kisses, the one most tilted toward Laud, is borne out almost immediately when we see him being dishonorably discharged from the army and he smirkingly makes a series of goony faces as the company commander chews him out and ejects him. Not, however, before we see him pass a classroom where a sergeant likens the handling of unexploded land mines to handling women.
The dishonorable discharge came from Truffaut's own youth, the physical reaction to it from Laud's, the romanticism that caused him to join the army in reaction to a love gone sour is Doinel to a T. In the brig, we see him reading Balzac's story of unconsummated love, "Le lys de vallee (Lily of the Valley)." Throughout, there's a gap between his ability to express his ardor in writing and his utter inability to do so in person, when he clams up or otherwise messes up. Truffaut also uses Laud's wired quality and shifty eyes with comic effect in the second job he finds after his less than distinguished military stint. His navet causes him to blow a job as a night clerk in a hotel when he allows a private detective and an indignant husband to invade the room where the man's wife is in bed with her lover. The avuncular detective, however, gets him a job in the detective agency (Truffaut's co-scriptwriters, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon, spent a month working in a real Parisian detective agency to prepare).
It's an ideal situation for Truffaut and Laud to get comic mileage out of Laud's furtive glances and nervous moves as he darts from behind tree trunks or in and out of doorways to conceal the fact that he's trailing a woman down a street on behalf of a client. Of course, he does so galumphingly, immediately marking him as no less an amateur as a private eye than as a lover. All the while, he's trying to rekindle the romance he blew with his girlfriend Christine (Claude Jade), a cultivated mix of almost angelic patience and wariness at Antoine's inconsistency. They're the kind of young lovers you can't help but root for. When he finally gets it together, stops trying so hard to conceptualize and verbalize his feelings for her - his chronic inability to do so creates many of his romantic problems - and follows up their night of physical intimacy with a few scribbled notes at breakfast, then slips a bottle opener's round end over her finger, we realize he's worked his way to spontaneous expression.
Once Antoine and Christine reach the point where they can talk about their future, you realize the distance Antoine has come since the beginning, when we hear that he wrote Christine nineteen letters in one week, after impulsively joining the army in romantic despair. (One can only imagine what was going through the mind of 19-year-old Claude Jade, the actress playing Christine, who was being pursued by Truffaut off-camera to the point where they were discussing marriage!). In the film, Antoine's confidence is given a boost by a generous response to his awkward attentions toward the glamorous and elegant wife (Delphine Seyrig) of a shoe store owner (a young, paranoiac Michael Lonsdale, gloomily funny). Seyrig's reaction to his written declaration of passion for her, sent by peneumatique after fumbling a face-to-face encounter, leads to her showing up at his modest digs in Montmartre and furthering, in Flaubert's phrase, his education sentmentale. She makes clear that it's a one-time thing.
But it gives him more confidence with Christine after she learns he's now working as a TV repairman and breaks their set when her parents are away so she can get him to come over. Doinel is a character who needs a lot of chances, and he gets them, including when Truffaut plays against stereotype and has her simpatico parents (Daniel Ceccaldi, Claire Duhamel) invite him into their house with warmth and try to put him at ease. Truffaut, coming off two films utilizing the up-front pre-production control of his adored Hitchcock, Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and The Bride Wore Black (1968), reverted here to the more open method of his other cinematic god, Jean Renoir, who never had everything nailed down when making a film, but left things open for actors to uncork happy surprises. Truffaut's more relaxed approach here paid off. There's a modesty of gesture here and a degree of spontaneity he didn't always attain. Above all, a disarming light-handedness and indirection pervade Stolen Kisses and the free-form, even chaotic, structure fits the story it tells.Truffaut himself was to describe it as a largely improvised small-budget film about the first loves of a young man in Paris. It was Truffaut's first successful film since The 400 Blows. Part of it was lucky timing. The film opened in the fall of 1968, after a tumultuous spring of demonstrations and street clashes in May and June. A few days into the Stolen Kisses shoot in February, the Gaullist government shut down the Cinematheque Francaise, then housed in the basement of the Chaillot Palace. Culture minister Andre Malraux ousted its founder, Andre Langlois. The result was the first film-oriented outbreak of street demonstrations, at which industry personnel protested shoulder to shoulder with enthusiasts. Truffaut was among the demonstrators, some 3000 in all, who assembled at the Trocadero and marched toward the Chaillot Palace. Before being beaten off by the police, they made speeches outside the shuttered Cinematheque, and concurrently unleashed torrents of anti-government writings. Malraux relented, Langlois was reinstated. Art and politics merged in a great popular victory.
By the fall of 1968, things had cooled down to the point where cineastes, who might once have dismissed the film Truffaut himself described as a nostalgic romantic comedy as reactionary, instead embraced it warmly. It was no accident that Stolen Kisses opens with a shot down the stairs of the Chaillot Palace, to the iron security gates barring entry to the shut-down Cinematheque. With public opinion on its side, Stolen Kisses never looked back. The nostalgia to which Truffaut (and the film's title) refers stem from a 1942 song by Truffaut's favorite pop singer, Charles Trenet: Que reste-t-il de nos amours? (What remains of our love? - English version: I Wish You Love). It begins and ends this sometimes whimsical, sometimes wacky, always ingratiating film. In the cycle's remaining films, Doinel was to hurtle from emotion to emotion he never quite understands or connects with. But not here. Stolen Kisses is the souffl on Truffaut's five-course Doinel menu.
Producer: Marcel Berbert, Francois Truffaut (both uncredited)
Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut, Claude de Givray, Bernard Revon (scenario and dialogue)
Cinematography: Denys Clerval
Art Direction: Claude Pignot
Music: Antoine Duhamel
Film Editing: Agnes Guillemot
Cast: Jean-Pierre Laud (Antoine Doinel), Delphine Seyrig (Fabienne Tabard), Claude Jade (Christine Darbon), Michel Lonsdale (Georges Tabard), Harry-Max (Monsieur Henri), Andre Falcon (Monsieur Blady), Daniel Ceccaldi (Lucien Darbon), Claire Duhamel (Madame Darbon), Catherine Lutz (Catherine), Martine Ferriere (La chef-vendeuse du magasin de chaussures).
by Jay Carr
Truffaut: A Biography, by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Knopf, 1999
Francois Truffaut, by Annette Insdorf, Touchstone, 1989
Francois Truffaut - Correspondence 1945-1984, edited by Gilles Jacob and Claude de Givray, Noonday Press, 1990
Finally Truffaut, by Don Allen, 1985