“I had often thought of filming a sequel to The 400 Blows,” François Truffaut wrote in his introduction to the Antoine Doinel screenplays, “but feared it might be taken as the exploitation of a ‘good thing.'” By June of 1961 he had changed his mind on this point, so when producer Pierre Roustang asked him to contribute an episode to an international anthology film called L’Amour à vingt ans (Love at Twenty), he decided to take the opportunity to follow up on Antoine Doinel. He brought back Jean-Pierre Léaud, for whom he had been seeking a project — as early as July 1959, he said that he wanted the young actor to star in “an adolescent’s first love story” in a few years — and Patrick Auffay in the role of René. The rest of the cast would be new.
In order to find an actress to play Antoine’s love interest, Colette, he placed an advertisement in Cinémonde: “François Truffaut seeks fiancée for Jean-Pierre Léaud and for Love at Twenty. Jean-Pierre’s partner must be a real girl, not a Lolita, not a leather-jacket type, not a little young woman. She must be simple and cheerful, and have a good average culture. If too ‘sexy’ please abstain.” Journalist Mario Brun sent him a photograph of seventeen-year-old Marie-France Pisier, a student who was doing amateur theater in Nice. It showed her walking down the street with her mother, brothers and sisters. “The photo must have interested François,” Pisier later said. “We know his worship of families!” He visited her in Nice and had her read a scene with Jeanne Moreau, with whom he was finishing work on the film Jules and Jim. According to Pisier, he was more interested in her voice than her appearance, because it was important for the girl to be better with words than Léaud. She then did screen tests in Paris, after which he gave her the role. (Her main competition was a young woman named Marina Bazanov. Bazanov’s grandmother, Helen Hessel, had inspired the character Kathe in Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel Jules and Jim. When Truffaut adapted it for the screen, he combined Kathe with several other figures from the book to create Moreau’s Catherine.)
Antoine and Colette, as the episode came to be known, was shot in a single week in January 1962. Many moments between Léaud and Pisier were improvised, the actress said, although Truffaut was extremely precise with the scene where Antoine first notices Colette — a scene influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, whom Truffaut would interview extensively later that year.
The half-hour film opens with Antoine in bed, awoken by a cheery song about a man indifferent to “the bombs in the air that one day’ll kill us all dead.” After blowing his nose and lighting a cigarette, Antoine turns off the radio, puts on a Bach record and stands on his balcony to survey the streets below. A narrator then explains what’s happened since the end of The 400 Blows:
Antoine Doinel is now seventeen years old. His mischief as an adolescent landed him in juvenile court. Having escaped from an observation center for delinquent youth, he was caught and placed in another center under stricter surveillance. A young psychologist at the center took an interest in his case, and he was finally released on probation. Antoine has carefully organized a solitary, independent life. His love of music led him to a job in a record company. He’s finally realized his adolescent dream: to live on his own, earn his own keep, and depend only on himself.
One evening, Antoine and René, who now works on the stock market, attend a concert put on by the Jeunesses Musicales de France, a classical music organization for young people. At the Salle Pleyel, Antoine notices a girl sitting several rows ahead of him, and he can’t stop himself from glancing over at her, even staring. (She, meanwhile, turns away whenever her eyes meet his, though she does seem to look back at him intentionally at the end of the night.) Despite the fact that he often attends these concerts, he’s never seen her before, and he becomes determined to make her acquaintance. After several failed attempts, he manages to sit beside her at a lecture and walks her home afterwards.
Before long, Antoine and Colette, the girl, are exchanging records and books and spending hours talking in cafes or in their doorways, bonding over their shared love of music. “Colette treats Antoine like a friend,” the narrator says. “He either doesn’t notice or accepts it for the time being.” When Colette fails to attend a lecture with Antoine, choosing to spend the night with other friends instead, he’s hurt. He calls her the next day and asks if he can come over that afternoon. “If you like. But I can’t promise I’ll be here.” Naturally, he goes anyway, and although Colette isn’t home, he meets her mother (Rosy Varte) and stepfather (François Darbon), who take a liking to him. “She’s told me so much about you,” her mother says. They invite him to dinner; he goes a step (or a hundred steps) further by moving into a hotel across the street. While this does wonders for his relationship with her parents — “Colette’s parents liked young people and missed Colette being around more, so they adopted Antoine and invited him over often” — his relationship with Colette herself falls apart.
Just as he had for The 400 Blows, Truffaut relied heavily on his own past when writing Antoine and Colette, to the point where some of Antoine’s dialogue originated in the director’s journal over a decade earlier. In January of 1950, the not-quite-eighteen-year-old became acquainted with a young woman named Liliane Litvin, a fellow frequenter of the Cinémathèque Française, and fell madly in love with her. (Jean-Luc Godard also tried to win her affections, as did Jean Gruault, who went on to co-write five of Truffaut’s movies.) Like Colette, she was only interested in a platonic relationship, and also like Colette, she lived with her mother and garage-owning stepfather, a friendly couple who often invited Truffaut and her other suitors over for meals. In June of that year he moved to a hotel across the street from her house, but although she and her parents were pleased by this arrangement and enjoyed visiting him there, his close proximity failed to awaken any romantic feelings in her. It was a painful episode in his life, one that led to a suicide attempt and an impulsive enlistment in the army. By the time he turned it into Antoine and Colette, he was able to view it more objectively. “It is a cruel story,” he wrote in the book of Doinel screenplays, “but I handled it in a light vein.” He even joked about it: “All parents have noticed that their children are invariably reluctant to read the books they press upon them: ‘Read this book. It was my favorite when I was your age.’ This explains Antoine’s failure in Love at Twenty: Colette has no use at all for a boy who appeals to her parents!” His plan to call the character Liliane must have been a bit much, though, because he changed her name to Colette in the first treatment.
Similar though the story is to Truffaut’s life, Antoine and Colette also shows the director starting to separate himself from his alter ego, however slightly. The most obvious example is the way he replaces his own devotion to cinema with Antoine’s devotion to music. This comes as something of a surprise — Antoine goes to the movies three times in the course of The 400 Blows and has no apparent interest in music — yet it’s not improbable that he discovered a new passion in the intervening years. Moreover, it allows Truffaut to do something clever: When Antoine first notices Colette, the orchestra is playing Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a piece with thematic relevance to the film. As Berlioz wrote in his program notes, the symphony is about a young man who “sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being of whom he has dreamed, and he falls hopelessly in love with her,” a love that proves unrequited. Antoine’s experience is much more prosaic — no dreams of executions or witches’ sabbaths for him — but the parallel is clear.
Another difference is that Truffaut at seventeen or eighteen had far more experience with women than Antoine appears to have. Characteristically, he had “countless liaisons” (as Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana put it) while pining after Liliane Litvin in 1950, but Antoine’s infatuation with Colette is unadulterated. (Colette’s remark that Antoine’s “very nicely written” love letter “suggests a man of experience” seems typical of her sense of humor.) In a 1965 interview on Cinéastes de notre temps, Truffaut talked about the concert scene in which Antoine keeps looking over at her: “This scene could come off as a bit suggestive, but it works because of Jean-Pierre’s innocence and the characters’ youth. So it’s not suggestive at all.” This innocent side to Antoine — a result of both Léaud’s performance and Truffaut’s writing and direction — is interesting, given his troubled early years. (It also makes his obsessive behavior more forgivable than it would be otherwise.) His time in the observation centers has not hardened him; if anything, the opposite appears to be true.
Indeed, the Antoine of Antoine and Colette is no longer the liar and thief of The 400 Blows. He’s very polite to Colette’s parents, has a steady job and is generally much better behaved than he once was — subdued, even, at least in some respects. In their biography of Truffaut, de Baecque and Toubiana describe the seventeen-year-old Léaud as “more disciplined, and also more melancholic” than he was at time of The 400 Blows, and the same might be said of Antoine. Still, he hasn’t changed completely. The romantic, impulsive boy who built a shrine to Honoré de Balzac, longed to see the ocean and ran away whenever things went wrong isn’t so different from the romantic, impulsive young man who falls in love at first sight and moves across the street from his inamorata on a whim; he’s just channeling his energy in a new direction.
Antoine’s desire for freedom and need for affection are also carried over from the first film. The narrator says that “to live on his own, earn his own keep, and depend only on himself” is Antoine’s ideal life, but his behavior throughout the story calls this into question. From the beginning, his isolation is obvious: besides the fact that he lives alone, his co-workers are all women — most of them significantly older than he is — and René remains his only apparent friend. When he first tells Colette that he works and doesn’t live with his parents, she admires his independence. “It must be great to be on your own,” she says. He replies, “That depends.” It’s no wonder that he latches on to her as strongly as he does, or that he develops such a warm relationship with her parents.
Notably, her family structure — a mother, a stepfather and no siblings — is the same as Antoine’s, yet the convivial atmosphere in their home has nothing in common with life in the often tense Doinel household. (As mentioned above, Liliane Litvin resided with her mother and stepfather during the period when Truffaut was enamored with her, so this family structure is a coincidence, not a narrative conceit.) Colette, a typical teenager, relishes her freedom and longs for more — “Question: Where is one better off than in the bosom of one’s family? Answer: Anywhere else!” she says half in jest — but she’s on excellent terms with her parents, joking with them and telling them all about Antoine, and they take an active interest in her life.
Antoine’s parents don’t appear in Antoine and Colette, although Truffaut initially planned to include them, as Carole Le Berre explains in François Truffaut at Work:
In his first treatment Truffaut crossed out a paragraph about Antoine visiting his parents. His father recalls his pranks and how much trouble they had raising him; his mother says, ‘That’s over — all that is forgotten. Let’s talk about something else,’ after which Antoine’s father makes him blush by talking about girls, teenage acne, etc. Truffaut preferred to dispense with this autobiographical allusion because he did not want to aggravate the schism in his own family, even though this time he was planning to give the mother a more flattering role. ‘The way I’ve compensated for Les Quatre Cents Coups is by having very sympathetic adults. This time I’ve shown a different family, one that works well. That’s probably why I like this film better, because it’s lighter, simpler and, I think, closer to life.’
In the finished film, Colette’s stepfather asks Antoine if his parents are alive. “Yes, but I don’t see them much,” he says. “We don’t get along.” Colette’s mother laments this and says that his mother must miss him, to which he replies, “It’s partly my fault. I used to run away a lot.” This is closer to Truffaut’s own familial status at the time — he still wasn’t speaking to his parents, and would not do so until May of 1962, when he learned they had separated — and serves as something of an apology or a peace offering, as well as a sign of Antoine’s maturation.
Unfortunately for Antoine, his ingratiation into Colette’s family hurts rather than helps his would-be romantic relationship with Colette. Although she’s friendly toward him in her parents’ presence, she starts to become noticeably colder and more distant when the two of them are alone together. “She obviously didn’t feel being neighbors meant they should be any closer,” the narrator says while Antoine leans out of his window and watches her come and go. As Truffaut expresses it in his first treatment, she “has little use for a suitor who is too assiduous and far too possessive.” When she rebuffs his cringeworthy, overzealous attempt to kiss her at the movies — the screenplay says that she “allows herself to be kissed on the cheek but not on the lips,” though the first part of that doesn’t come across clearly in the film — he more or less gives up on her, yet he still accepts her parents’ dinner invitation, albeit after some hesitation. “The only result of Antoine’s persistent efforts to get close to his goddess is that Colette has come to look upon him as a member of the family — a sort of remote cousin — and in any case, as an encumbrance to her freedom of action,” Truffaut wrote. Thus, he gets the family he needs but not the girl he wants — another imperfect, compromised situation.
The other segments in Love at Twenty were directed by Italy’s Renzo Rossellini (nephew of Roberto), Germany’s Marcel Ophüls (son of Max), Poland’s Andrzej Wajda and Japan’s Shintaro Ishihara. Truffaut was more involved with the project than any of the other filmmakers, as he and his frequent editor Claudine Bouché were responsible for editing all five episodes, and he was disappointed by its failure at the box office upon its release in July of 1962. Love at Twenty remains noteworthy due to the presence of Antoine and Colette, a brief but crucial work in Truffaut’s filmography. In the words of de Baecque and Toubiana, “the tone for the ‘Antoine Doinel adventures’ had now been set, a lighter, more whimsical and melancholic one than could be anticipated from The 400 Blows.”
De Baecque, Antoine, and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut: A Biography. Trans. Catherine Temerson. New York: Knopf, 1999.
“François Truffaut ou l’esprit critique.” Cinéastes de notre temps. 2 December 1965.
Ingram, Robert. François Truffaut: The Complete Films. Cologne: Taschen, 2013.
Le Berre, Carole. François Truffaut at Work. Trans. Bill Krohn. London: Phaidon, 2005.
Le Roman de François Truffaut. Paris: Editions de l’Etoile, 1985.
Steinberg, Michael. “Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (Fantastic Symphony: Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts), Opus 14.” San Francisco Symphony. San Francisco Symphony, 2013.
Truffaut, François. The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. Trans. Helen G. Scott. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
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