Sunday, September 23, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.10: Francois Truffaut's Bed and Board

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 58 (B-)

With Antoine Doinel, Francois Truffaut created one of cinema’s greatest characters- a director surrogate in a series of deeply personal stories that was nonetheless relatable to audiences around the world. From the perils of childhood (The 400 Blows), the confusion of adolescence and young love (Antoine and Colette), and the difficulty of young adulthood (Stolen Kisses), Truffaut and actor Jean-Pierre Leaud’s portraits restless youth remain some of the finest films of their time. 1970’s Bed and Board, the fourth installment in the Antoine Doinel series, has a lot to live up to, and it’s easy to be disappointed by what’s ultimately a lesser effort in spite of its relative merits.

Picking up where Stolen Kisses left off two years earlier, Antoine (Leaud) and Christine (Claude Jade) have married and now live in a small apartment. Christine is a violin teacher and concert player, while the eternally restless Antoine still has difficulty finding a steady job. Christine and Antoine have their first child, but their marriage has grown complacent and difficult, and Antoine is tempted into extramarital affairs.

In its superior first half, Bed and Board plays like a more mature flipside to the swooning romanticism and playfulness of Stolen Kisses. Truffaut still fits the film with fun bits- an early shot follows Christine’s legs as she shops around and insists to be called Madame rather than Mademoiselle. Truffaut crafts a lively environment at the Doinel’s apartment building, with a soothsaying Italian woman who insists she and Antoine are destined for an affair (she’s wrong), the Doinel’s shut-in neighbor has conversations from his balcony, and the whole complex gossips about a strange and creepy neighbor who keeps to himself.

The film is at its best when portraying adult married life as an ill-fitting suit for Antoine. He’s now part of the bourgeois society he felt ostracized from, but he clearly doesn’t belong. He’s still restless, he lacks ambition in the normal job field, and he hangs onto dreams of becoming a writer. In a scene reminiscent of Stolen Kisses, Antoine and Christine kiss in her parents’ cellar, but the circumstances have changed- they’ve gone from passionate yet awkward to complacent and reluctant. When Antoine’s friend asks for money over and over again, Antoine doesn’t think twice, he gives him the cash, never mind that he has a family to provide for. He’s still a playful and immature kid, not so much stubborn to adapt to adulthood as he’s oblivious and unable to.

As the film settles into a portrait of a crumbling marriage, however, its tone goes from wistful to sour. The first indications aren’t so bad- Antoine and Christine clash over the name of their son. Her pick, Ghislain, is too snobby for Antoine, where his pick, Alphonse, is too common. She’s grown complacent in the bourgeois society where he’s still an outsider looking in. But Antoine’s affair with a Japanese woman feels forced and more like a plot device than a natural development. There are a few playful moments- particularly a montage that shows just how empty the affair is, as the two have nothing to say to each other- but it’s mostly a catalyst for where Truffaut wants to take the plot.

The domestic arguments between Antoine and Christine in the final third of the film reek of a bitterness that’s ill-suited to Truffaut’s romanticism, and they more or less play out exactly as one might expect. She’s unsupportive of him, he’s immature. The two still have some affection for each other, but it’s gone all wrong. Truffaut isn’t totally unfair to either of them, but by the end, there’s a big question mark to everything: why? What purpose did this serve? Couldn’t we have guessed where this relationship would have gone at the end of Stolen Kisses? That last criticism might be a little unfair, and Bed and Board isn’t a bad film by any means. It just doesn’t play nearly as well as a standalone piece as the earlier installments in the series. 

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