In September of 1958, a fledgling director placed an advertisement in France-Soir, seeking a young adolescent to star in his upcoming movie. Finding the right actor was particularly important to him: Not only would this be his first feature film, but the boy he chose would be playing a thinly veiled version of the director himself.
François Truffaut had had a difficult youth. Born out of wedlock in 1932 to a teenage mother and an unknown father, he was raised by a wet nurse and then by his grandmother, who died when he was ten. Upon her death, he moved in with his mother and stepfather. They had never shown a great deal of interest in him up until that point, and living together failed to improve matters — quite the contrary. Feeling neglected and unwanted, Truffaut became a juvenile delinquent. He lied; he stole; he was sent to a detention center for failing to pay off a debt; he enlisted in the army on a whim, went AWOL, and spent time in military prison. Fortunately, he also became something else: a cinephile. Movies were his passion, his obsession, and in many ways, his salvation. Through his involvement in various film societies, he found a mentor and much-needed father figure in critic André Bazin, and soon he was working as a film critic himself, writing for publications such as Arts-Lettres-Spectacles and Cahiers du cinéma, a monthly magazine that Bazin had co-founded. The strongly opinionated Truffaut made a name for himself by championing the movies and directors he admired and attacking those he didn’t; many of the latter came from the established French film industry. Before long, he and a number of his Cahiers colleagues — among them Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol — began making their own films, putting their theories into practice. Truffaut started out by directing three shorts, one of which, 1957’s Les Mistons, won him a best director award at the Brussels World Film Festival.
Still, in spite of his success, he had not forgotten his painful early years. He drew heavily on those memories for his first feature, which he named Les Quatre Cents Coups, or The 400 Blows. As he explained years later in his introduction to The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, “During [adolescence], a simple disturbance, or upset, can spark off a revolt and this crisis is precisely described as adolescent rebellion: the world is unjust, one must cope with it anyway, and one way to cope is to raise hell. In France this is known as ‘faire les quatre cents coups.'” About sixty boys auditioned to play the protagonist, Antoine Doinel, and one in particular caught Truffaut’s attention. “Many of the boys had responded to the ad out of simple curiosity, or at the insistence of their parents. Jean-Pierre Léaud was different: he desperately wanted that role, and though he was thoroughly intimidated, he did his best to appear cheerful and relaxed,” Truffaut wrote. In 1970, Léaud told The New York Times, “I was as scared as the rest, but there are two kinds of fear. One closes you up, the other makes you give, almost with exuberance. Truffaut was as shy as I was but his shyness is more enclosed. I’m shy aggressively.”
The fourteen-year-old Léaud came from a cinematic background: his mother, Jacqueline Pierreux, was an actress, and his father, Pierre Léaud, was a writer and assistant director. Earlier in 1958, the young Léaud had had a small part in La Tour, prends garde!, one of his father’s projects, but he spent most of his time at a boarding school more than a hundred miles from Paris. Since age six, he had attended and been expelled from something like a dozen different schools (the exact number varies from source to source), and judging by a letter that his current headmaster wrote to Truffaut, history seemed doomed to repeat itself. The headmaster described Léaud as “unmanageable,” accused him of “indifference, arrogance, permanent defiance, lack of discipline in all its forms” and concluded that he was “developing more and more into an emotionally disturbed case.” Truffaut, once “an emotionally disturbed case” himself, was undaunted. Léaud’s vitality and desire to win the role impressed him, and after conducting further screen tests, he cast the boy as Antoine. Undoubtedly, neither director nor actor suspected that they had just formed a partnership that would span twenty years and seven films.
Although Truffaut had based Antoine on himself, Léaud’s strong personality took the character in a different direction. During a 2001 interview with Libération, the actor said, “At the time, I was extroverted, boisterous, and François, in contrast, was reserved, very introverted.” Truffaut elaborated on the differences between them in Paris-Journal in May of 1959: “Though we were both rebels, we hadn’t expressed our rebellion in the same way. I preferred to cover up and lie. Jean-Pierre, on the contrary, seeks to hurt, shock and wants it to be known… Why? Because he’s unruly, while I was sly. Because his excitability requires that things happen to him, and when they don’t occur quickly enough, he provokes them.” The director approved of Léaud’s influence on Antoine, in the belief “that actors are always more important than the characters they portray, or, to put it in a different way, that we should always sacrifice the abstract for the concrete.” (He did, however, object to at least one aspect of Léaud’s performance: “He was wonderful, but he was scared that he’d be unsympathetic, so he always wanted to smile. For three months I kept him from smiling.”)
Not only did Truffaut revise the script to make Antoine more outgoing, but he allowed Léaud to alter the dialogue to suit himself. “He’d give me an idea as to what I was to say or do,” Léaud told Cinéastes de notre temps, “but that’s all. I’d say it using my own words, my own youth. I’d improvise.” The most obvious example is the scene in which Antoine is interviewed by a psychologist at a juvenile detention center. Once the camera was running, Truffaut dismissed the crew, sat down across the table from Léaud and began asking him questions. Léaud, who had not been given the questions in advance, was to answer however he saw fit. “In the beginning it wasn’t working,” the actor explained at Cannes in 1959, “so he gave me some ideas that I would then flesh out to say what I had to say.” Eventually, he grew more comfortable, to the point where “he was so spontaneous in his replies that some of them were based upon his own life,” according to Truffaut. The result was one of the most memorable scenes in all of French New Wave cinema. Only Léaud appears onscreen; Truffaut remains both unseen and unheard, as his voice was dubbed over by that of an actress, yet it illustrates the great rapport that had already developed between the director and the actor.
In spite of their differences, the two had much in common. Like Truffaut — and, for that matter, like Antoine — Léaud had a troubled relationship with his parents. In order to shoot the film in Paris, he left his boarding school to live with them, but this arrangement quickly proved problematic. Per Truffaut, speaking to The New York Times in 1969, “His mother came to see me, weeping, and said, ‘It’s not possible, he wants to fight his father,’ and then he would show up on the set with his face bruised. When you’re making a picture you’re very selfish, and I said, ‘This can’t go on.’ So I took him in.” From that point on, and for the rest of the director’s life, he served as a surrogate father to Léaud, just as Bazin had been to him. (Bazin, notably, had died of leukemia the day after filming began on The 400 Blows.) He placed him in a school; he found housing for him; he advised him on his work. “A paternity was built at that moment, a moral responsibility,” Léaud said in 2001. “He took care of the lost child that I was. I was lucky to come across him. He was very humane and generous, undoubtedly because cinema had saved him too.” Truffaut also passed on his love of film to Léaud, as the actor explained in a 1971 interview with Le Monde: “François took me to the movie theaters. For example, at the rushes of Breathless, he said to me, ‘Watch that magnificent tracking’; at Touch of Evil, by Orson Welles, ‘Watch that admirable camera movement.’ I watched, I watched the shots, I discovered Hitchcock, Hawks, Rossellini, Renoir; in short, I became a cinephile with the friends from Cahiers.” Léaud’s reaction upon seeing the completed version of The 400 Blows for the first time, as described by Truffaut, spoke volumes: “Jean-Pierre, who had laughed his way through the shooting, burst into tears: behind this autobiographical chronicle of mine, he recognized the story of his own life.”
The 400 Blows premiered on May 4, 1959 at the Cannes Film Festival — an event that had refused to accredit Truffaut as a journalist the previous year due to his harsh criticism of it. In his eyes, it was too closely tied to the established French film industry, so the triumph of his own movie, made outside of the studio system, must have been especially satisfying. Cahiers co-founder Jacques Doniol-Valcroze described it as “a sudden missile exploding right in the enemy camp”; Elle spoke of “the rebirth of French cinema”; Paris-Match dubbed Cannes “The Festival of Child Prodigies.” Truffaut and Léaud found themselves all over the media, Léaud in particular. In their biography of Truffaut, Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana wrote that the fourteen-year-old “became the darling of the festival” and added, “Reports on him, his family, his difficult life, his ambitions, and his personality proliferated in the press and on the radio. His Cannes escapades — in restaurants, bars, and night-clubs — his rash statements, his arguments with his parents, fascinated journalists and paparazzi. The serious press followed suit and in a matter of days Truffaut, too, became an emblematic figure.” Still only twenty-seven, Truffaut was named best director. With Léaud, his “valuable collaborator,” he had created one of the quintessential films of the French New Wave, and of French cinema in general. Their careers and their work together had just begun.
Over the next two years, while they both made films separately, Truffaut sought another project for Léaud, and in July of 1961, he found one. Producer Pierre Roustang asked the director to contribute an episode to L’Amour à vingt ans, or Love at Twenty, an international anthology film about young romance. Truffaut, who had come to regret not making a sequel to The 400 Blows, decided that this was as good a time as any to bring back Antoine Doinel, with the seventeen-year-old Léaud reprising his iconic role. The thirty-minute short, which came to be known as Antoine and Colette, found the character dealing with unrequited love, and like The 400 Blows, much of it was drawn directly from Truffaut’s youth, although the film was lighter than both its predecessor and the real-life incident that inspired it. Once again, Truffaut relied on Léaud as a collaborator, not merely an actor. “That film really was improvised. We had only the outline,” said Truffaut, who “invented every day” with Léaud and co-stars Marie-France Pisier, Rosy Varte and François Darbon.
Love at Twenty was released in 1962, and six years passed before Truffaut directed Léaud again. During that period, Léaud took a break from acting, save for a few cameos, and instead worked as an assistant director: on Truffaut’s The Soft Skin, on Jean-Louis Richard’s Mata Hari, agent H21 (co-written by Truffaut), and on four of Jean-Luc Godard’s films (Une Femme mariée, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou and Made in U.S.A). In 1965, Godard asked Léaud to star in Masculin féminin. “I was afraid at finding myself an actor again, of putting myself in front of the camera again,” he told Le Monde in 1971. “But I considered my work as an actor in a particular way, with the idea, the desire, later on, to direct.” However, acting soon took precedence. He continued to appear in Godard’s films throughout the mid to late sixties, and became almost as closely associated with him as with Truffaut; as he put it in 1970, “Truffaut is my father, Godard is my uncle.” Elsewhere, he acknowledged that “between these two, I had a problem of identity.” The directors, who had met as teenagers and were still friends in the mid-sixties, were very different from each other. Most significantly, Godard was becoming increasingly involved in left-wing politics at that time, and so was Léaud, who said that Godard “changed my personality, opened the world to me.” Truffaut, too skeptical to commit to any party or ideology, stayed out of politics for the most part (“I am leftish, I am not leftist,” he said in 1978), which sometimes put him at odds with militant friends and colleagues. In 1973, largely for reasons related to politics, he and Godard had a dramatic falling out that put a permanent end to their friendship.
Despite this potential source of tension between Truffaut and Léaud, and the fact that Léaud once referred to the Antoine Doinel films as a “gilded cage” from which Godard allowed him to escape, the two remained close. In 1968 they set to work on the third entry in the Doinel series, Baisers volés, or Stolen Kisses. Although Truffaut did incorporate some autobiographical elements into the screenplay, the overall plot — Antoine gets a job at a detective agency and falls in love with a client’s wife — was fictitious, and the film as a whole was much more comedic than either The 400 Blows or Antoine and Colette. Moreover, Léaud became an even bigger influence on Antoine than ever before. “Increasingly, the character’s gestures, attitudes, anecdotes, and even memories belong to Léaud himself. Truffaut was fully aware of this and encouraged it, never curbing Léaud’s inspiration and improvisations,” Truffaut’s biographers wrote. Both director and actor acknowledged that Antoine — romantic, anachronistic, childlike and childish, somewhat antisocial, always on the run — was based on both of them, especially as the series continued. “He’s a mix, like mayonnaise,” Truffaut explained to People in 1979. “You can no longer separate the elements.” In his introduction to the Antoine Doinel screenplays, he opened with the following anecdote:
A little while ago a French television program, At the Movies, featured an excerpt from Stolen Kisses, played by Delphine Seyrig and Jean-Pierre Léaud.
On the following morning I stepped into a café where I had never been before. The owner came up to me, saying: ‘I recognize you! I saw you on television yesterday!’ Obviously, it was not me he had seen, but Jean-Pierre Léaud in the role of Antoine Doinel; however, since I seldom bother to rectify a misunderstanding, I let this one go and simply asked him for a strong cup of coffee. When he brought it over, he took a closer look at me and added: ‘That film must have been made a long time ago. You looked much younger then!’
The reason I mention this incident is that it illustrates fairly well the ambiguity (as well as the ubiquity) of that imaginary personage, Antoine Doinel, who happens to be the synthesis of two real-life people: Jean-Pierre Léaud and myself.
I might also quote the news dealer on the Rue Marbeuf, who said to me a few days ago: ‘Your son came by this morning.’
‘Yes, the young actor!’
Of casting The 400 Blows, Truffaut wrote, “What I was hoping to find was a moral resemblance to the child I thought I had been rather than a physical one.” Oddly, though, as Léaud grew up, he began to look like his director; for example, People‘s Pamela Andriotakis cited the actor’s “slight build, deep-set eyes and nervous gestures” as eerily resembling those of Truffaut. “People said we looked alike, and it may be true,” Truffaut told The New York Times in 1969. “And then, because we saw so much of each other, there was a mimetic thing.” Léaud, asked about the subject on a 1965 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, had his own explanation: “We look like the people we love.”
The two were full of praise for each other. “The most exhilarating and most fantastic moments of my life were when I filmed with him. Truly,” Léaud said in 1965. Later, he compared shooting a film with Truffaut to “a vacation, or a dream, or a state of grace,” and he described the director as “the only one who tells me the truth about my work.” Truffaut, meanwhile, said, “I write a scenario just for Jean-Pierre. If he got sick two weeks before shooting started, I wouldn’t look for another actor. Another actor couldn’t do it. The same things I give to someone else, say Belmondo, and the critics find they’re not real — that nobody would say that, or do that. But when I give them to Jean-Pierre, they all rave. So naturally I have the greatest professional admiration for him. And affection. He’s part of me, I’m part of him. I see myself in him when I was his age.” He even went so far as to call him “the best French actor of his generation.”
After one further Doinel film — 1970’s Domicile conjugal, or Bed and Board, which covered the first years of Antoine’s married life — Truffaut felt that the series had run its course, and that Léaud needed to break away from the character for the sake of his career. “My present concern is therefore with finding other directions for working with Jean-Pierre,” he said in a November 1970 interview, “perhaps a historical film that would let me show him in a costume and get him once and for all away from Doinel.” That was, indeed, the route he took with his next film, 1971’s Les Deux Anglaises et le continent, or Two English Girls. Based on an autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, whose writing had also inspired Truffaut’s 1962 film Jules and Jim, Two English Girls is set at the turn of the twentieth century and tells an anguished story of love and loss involving a wealthy young Frenchman and a pair of British sisters. Léaud played the Frenchman, Claude Roc.
“This is a real performance for him,” Truffaut said in an on-set interview for Pour le cinema. “I think that the hardest thing for him is to play someone who was born rich and feels comfortable in life, unlike Antoine Doinel. Antoine Doinel is a shy boy who manages to get by but who belongs to a lower social class. Roché was a tall, thin man, and Léaud has to act as if he was tall, as if he had been born rich, as if he was sporty and in harmony with life. That’s why it’s a performance.” Once the film was finished, he praised Léaud for giving “proof of possibilities of emotion one would never expect in his half-brother, Antoine Doinel.” However, while Léaud spoke highly of Two English Girls and appreciated the opportunity to branch out, he didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. He later described his non-Doinel roles with Truffaut as “painful characters. With them, there wasn’t the same pleasure of acting as with Doinel.” Additionally, he noted that Claude still had certain autobiographical connections with Truffaut, despite being based on another real person and seemingly miles away from Antoine Doinel: “In Two English Girls, the story was terrible in relation to François’s life, and for me it was the same thing. I shouldered everything.” (He didn’t elaborate, but it’s worth mentioning that Truffaut had been devastated by a break-up with Catherine Deneuve several months before filming began; to strengthen the parallel, he had previously been involved with her sister, Françoise Dorléac, who had starred in 1964’s The Soft Skin and died in a car accident three years later.)
Léaud’s other “painful character” for Truffaut was Alphonse in the 1973 comedy La Nuit américaine, or Day for Night, which followed the goings-on behind the scenes of a movie. Claude had been a challenge; Alphonse was not. According to Truffaut’s biographers, the character — an actor, “romantic, often capricious and unstable, to the point of interrupting the shoot” — “resembles in every detail the Léaud of the early seventies.” Years later, on a 1981 episode of Champ contre champ, Truffaut contended that audiences often confused Léaud himself with the roles he played, especially Alphonse: “Léaud plays a young actor in the film. At some point he jeopardizes the whole shoot because of a romantic problem. I know that this film hurt him a little because people think Jean-Pierre is capable of walking off the set, of leaving the set during a shoot.” “There was a process of identification,” one of the men on the program said, and another added, “A director’s perverse triumph.” Truffaut agreed: “More with him than with [Day for Night co-stars] Jacqueline Bisset or Valentina Cortese or Jean-Pierre Aumont, and I don’t know why. I don’t know why, but it has to be taken into account.” He did acknowledge, however, that some of Alphonse’s behavior was inspired by the real Léaud, although “the idea of Jean-Pierre Léaud, with what one has seen him do in other films” carried more weight.
At any rate, Alphonse was not another incarnation of Truffaut, because the director played his own alter ego in Day for Night. “His name is Ferrand,” he said of the director character, “and he really is a lot like me. I didn’t want to create a character, and you see me at work as if I had been filmed for a television program.” Some similarities stand out: Ferrand has books on filmmakers whom Truffaut admired, he loved Citizen Kane when he was young, he suffers from partial hearing loss sustained during his time in the military. Furthermore, the relationship between Ferrand and Alphonse seems to parallel the relationship between Truffaut and Léaud. At one point, for instance, Alphonse asks for Ferrand’s advice on a role that he’s been offered; in real life, as Truffaut’s biographers stated, “there wasn’t a single screenplay, a single film, television or theater project offered to Léaud that wasn’t first examined by Truffaut, whose opinion the actor always sought.” Alphonse even asks Ferrand to be his best man at his wedding, suggesting that he thinks of him as more than just a boss or a colleague. In addition, one of the film’s most memorable speeches is addressed to the lovelorn Alphonse by Ferrand: “You’re a very good actor. No one’s personal life runs smoothly. That only happens in the movies. No traffic jams or useless down time. Movies move along like trains in the night. And people like you are me are only happy in our work. Good night. I’m counting on you.” Truffaut had also seen parallels to his relationship with Léaud in his 1970 film The Wild Child. In this fact-based story, a doctor, played by Truffaut, teaches language and other skills to a boy found living in the woods. Léaud did not appear in the movie, but Truffaut dedicated it to him.
After a hiatus that had lasted almost a decade, Truffaut revived Antoine Doinel in 1978. He had intended to end the series with Bed and Board, but due to the box office failure of his 1978 film The Green Room, he needed a guaranteed hit to recoup his losses. L’Amour en fuite, or Love on the Run, released in 1979, depicted a divorced Antoine and his continuing romantic problems, with frequent flashbacks to the earlier movies. Truffaut was unhappy with the project from the start, yet when assistant director Suzanne Schiffman suggested killing off Antoine in order to get rid of him for good, he was horrified. “You’re completely crazy, we can’t kill Doinel, I haven’t the right!” Schiffman later recalled him saying. As for Léaud, he described Love on the Run as “very painful, an error” and said that bidding goodbye to Antoine Doinel was “very, very painful, like a break-up. Personally, I never would have disowned or stopped Doinel. Anyway, he’s part of history.”
In the early 1980s, Truffaut planned an ambitious project spanning the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, tentatively entitled 00-14. Like some of Ingmar Bergman’s works, such as Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander, there would have been both a theatrical cut and a longer television miniseries. He had Léaud in mind for one of the main characters, “a young anarchist worker who gradually changed camps,” but it was not to be. On October 21, 1984, Truffaut died of cancer. Shortly after his death, Cahiers du cinéma published Le Roman de François Truffaut, a collection of tributes from dozens of people who had known him. Léaud’s was the shortest in the book, but also one of the most moving:
I owe everything to François. Not only did he communicate to me his love of cinema, but he gave me the most beautiful job in the world: he made me an actor.
Today the actor prefers to keep silent in order to let the characters of Antoine, Claude and Alphonse live and speak on the screen. I will add that François is the man that I loved most in the world, as he said of his friend André Bazin. I miss him. We miss him.
Andriotakis, Pamela. “Jean-Pierre Leaud, Truffaut’s Favorite Star, May Finally Outgrow Life & Love on the Run.” People 25 June 1979.
Baby, Yvonne. “Des ‘Quatre Cents Coups’ aux ‘Deux Anglaises et le continent.'” Le Monde 9 December 1971.
De Baecque, Antoine, and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut: A Biography. Trans. Catherine Temerson. New York: Knopf, 1999.
De Gramont, Sanche. “Life Style of Homo Cinematicus.” New York Times 15 June 1969.
“François Truffaut ou l’esprit critique.” Cinéastes de notre temps. 2 December 1965.
Le Berre, Carole. François Truffaut at Work. Trans. Bill Krohn. London: Phaidon, 2005.
Léaud, Jean-Pierre. Interview. Le Dernier des cinq. 10 June 1973.
Léaud, Jean-Pierre. Interview. Reflets de Cannes. 1959.
Peron, Didier, and Antoine de Baecque. “Leaud, retour à Doinel.” Libération 31 August 2001.
Le Roman de François Truffaut. Paris: Editions de l’Etoile, 1985.
Ross, Walter S. “The Actor the French Dig the Most.” New York Times 28 June 1970.
Truffaut by Truffaut. Ed. Dominique Rabourdin. Trans. Robert Erich Wolf. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Truffaut, François. The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. Trans. Helen G. Scott. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
Truffaut, François. Interview. Champ contre champ. 31 January 1981.
Truffaut, François. Interview. Pour le cinéma. 1971.
Two in the Wave. Dir. Emmanuel Laurent. Lorber Films, 2010.
This post is part of the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Click the banner above to see all the other great posts.