Thursday, September 20, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.7: Francois Truffaut's Antoine and Colette/Stolen Kisses


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.

Antoine and Colette Grade: 95 (A)

At the height of the French New Wave period, Francois Truffaut was approached to direct a segment of the omnibus film Love at Twenty. Truffaut took the approach as an opportunity to return to the Antoine Doinel character he and actor Jean-Pierre Leaud immortalized in The 400 Blows. Where the segments by Marcel Ophuls, Renzo Rossellini, Andrzej Wajda, and Shintaro Ishihara have been long forgotten, Truffaut’s deeply personal mini-sequel to his directorial debut is an essential bridge to Truffaut’s later career.

Antoine Doinel (Leaud) is 17 years old and lives on his own following the events of The 400 Blows. Doinel works in a record company pressing LPs and spends his free time going to classical concerts. One night, Antoine meets and falls for the aloof Colette (Marie-France Pisier). The two develop a strong friendship, and Colette’s family treat Antoine as if he was their own son. But Colette does not think of Antoine as anything more than a friend, and heartbreak lurks around the corner.

Filmed shortly after Truffaut finished Jules and Jim, Antoine and Colette is very much part of that playful French New Wave period- Truffaut has always been a Hitchcock fan, and he uses Hitchcock’s voyeuristic themes as a jumping off point for his own- when Antoine sees Colette for the first time at a concert, Truffaut cuts back and forth between Antoine’s adoring face, Colette noticing Antoine, and the classical musicians on stage. Truffaut understands the thrill of falling in love at first sight, and the increasing rapidity of the music matches Antoine’s heartbeat. Just as masterful is Truffaut’s depiction of Antoine’s foiled attempts at romance, be it in the movie theatre or through a letter.

Just as The 400 Blows was based off of Truffaut’s unhappy childhood, Antoine and Colette is based off the director’s own experiences falling in love for the first time (Colette is based on a woman who turned down both Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard). Leaud is as assured as ever as Truffaut surrogate Antoine, a misfit lost in the world, hopeful for happiness in spite of his past experiences. His difficult childhood has led to his increased desire for independence, but he’s directionless in a difficult world and stuck at a go-nowhere job. His experiences in school have been horrendous, so he doesn’t go to school. When Antoine meets Colette’s warm-hearted parents, he doesn’t contradict her father’s put-down of Victor Hugo- he’s too grateful that he’s with people who care about him and think highly of his independence.

But romance isn’t in the cards for Antoine. He’s too much a hopeless romantic with a much more confident and experienced girl. She appreciates his love letter (“it was very well written, and suggests a man with experience”), but her appreciation doesn’t go beyond analysis, and it certainly doesn’t approach the passion Antoine shows for her. When Antoine is encouraged by Colette’s parents, he piles on the affection: he moves close by, makes a record for her, and tries taking her hand and necking at the movies. It’s easy to understand his behavior even if he does come on a little strong. It’s even easier to sympathize when him when his heart is inevitably broken by Colette. Hell, Colette’s own parents feel bad for him- they invite him to watch TV with them as Colette and her new boyfriend go off hand-in-hand. For a little while, Antoine gets the loving parents he never had.

Stolen Kisses Grade: 96 (A)

Truffaut spent a few years after the end of the New Wave struggling to find his footing as an artist, releasing the fascinating but flawed adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 and the pale Hitchcock homage The Bride Wore Black. His artistic rejuvenation came not long thereafter, however, with the first feature-length sequel to The 400 Blows: 1968’s Stolen Kisses. The film shows Truffaut edging closer to “mainstream” filmmaking, but Truffaut is hardly coasting here. If anything, it’s his most unpredictable and delightfully offbeat film since Jules and Jim, in part because of its largely improvised and playful nature (a necessity consider Truffaut’s preoccupation with the revolutionary events in Paris in 1968), but also because it returns to Jules and Jim’s depiction of the difficulty of fitting into society, and of the complexities of love.

 Antoine Doinel (Leaud again) has been dishonorably discharged from the military. He first pursues love with Christine (Claude Jade), a young violinist he wrote to while in the military, but their relationship has ups and downs. Antoine also jumps from job to job, first as a hotel desk clerk, then as a private detective (and as a stock boy in a shoe store while he works on one case), and finally as a TV repairman. Antoine also falls for the shoe store owner’s wife Fabienne (Delphine Seyrig). Antoine bumbles through jobs and loves, searching for a place to fit in.

Stolen Kisses has a mood of melancholy and wistfulness similar to that of The 400 Blows and Antoine and Colette, but it’s also more immediately inviting and lighthearted. The film opens with the gorgeous French pop song “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”, or “What Remains of Our Love?”. It’s a playful, jazzy song signals the mood Truffaut evokes throughout the picture. Truffaut evokes both the poetic realism of Renoir and the playful gamesmanship of Hitchcock, but it’s a much fluffier and more improvisatory version of those styles.

When Antoine starts as a private eye, he’s hilariously terrible at it: his conspicuous tailing of a young woman immediately brings suspicion. Antoine learns a few tricks from the game, like when he calls a woman for an address by telling her she’s won a contest (“When I say Chiquita, you say…that’s right, BANANA!”), but remains woefully inept in other regards. Truffaut’s playfulness extends beyond Antoine’s vocational failings: when one man comes to the agency asking for them to tail a magician, Truffaut outfits the man like Peter Lorre’s character in The Maltese Falcon to let us know what’s on the man’s mind. Where that segment calls back to cinema’s past, a scene where a banal man asks the agency to find out why nobody likes him plays like a proto-I Heart Huckabees. It’s even funnier when, predictably, Antoine’s boss sends him off on this dumb case.

But while the precociousness of the film and its understanding of how unfulfilling life and love is might have influenced David O. Russell’s existential screwball comedy masterpiece, his most apparent heir is Wes Anderson, who’s Max Fischer from Rushmore fits right in next to Doinel as a kid who doesn’t fit in much of anywhere else. He’s not a confident revolutionary who rejects society, as Godard might have made him, but an awkward, precocious misfit. Antoine joined the army only as a way to get away from his past- namely his unloving parents and the heartbreak of Colette, whose brief appearance here is another unwelcome memory for Antoine, as well as a reminder of how everyone else has adjusted to adulthood better than he has. By the time he realized what he got himself into, it was too late. Both Antoine and Truffaut have little respect for authority, and Antoine plays like what would have happened had Truffaut not found filmmaking as a creative outlet. The private eye misadventures plays like a dream job that he can’t help but bungle, while his other jobs are just killing time.

Antoine is, at the end of the day, a hopeless romantic, one who will try to learn English to charm the boss’ good looking wife and defend her from the bitchy clerks at work. When he accidentally calls her “sir”, he’s too embarrassed to face her again, and it takes her initiative for them to finally end up in bed. It’s all a diversion from his real love with Christine, but that doesn’t go as smoothly as he’d like either. Their date in a nightclub together is breathlessly awkward, particularly when Antoine has to leave early to follow a lead. Christine is understanding and patient, but when Antoine has an in with Fabienne, he gravitates towards her and blows off Christine. That the two do end up together, ready to get married, is testament to Christine’s persistence, but it’s not clear it’ll all work out in the end. In the final scene, as Christine gets a declaration of love from a man who’s been following her throughout the film, she can’t help but think the man is insane. But Antoine’s answer of “He must be” isn’t so much out of agreement as it is out of recognition of what he’s been through. This odd man is another hopeless romantic in this at once whimsical and wistful tale of the perils of love.

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