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Artistic Director's Blog
Jean-Pierre Léaud

Artistic Director's Blog
Jean-Pierre Léaud

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Apart from those actors who began their careers as children, there are very few whose growing up has been lived through and been part of film history itself. And Jean-Pierre Léaud is undoubtedly the only one whose debut, can be pinpointed to a specific date, like a cinematic birth certificate. May 4, 1959 at the Cannes Festival, with the screening of Les400 coups. The film had already been shown at Avignon, where Malraux gave it his blessing to represent France at the Cannes festival, but it was the Croisette event that clinched it for this youngster, who, as  Godard commented, seemed like someone straight out of a René Fallet novel. Hand in glove with François Truffaut, the pair of them so alike despite the age difference between them. And it was always to be thus. Truffaut had met the youth some months earlier, and, seeing something of himself in him, or perhaps simply blown away by the budding actor, gave him the lead role in the film.

For those who have seen Truffaut’s audition of the young Léaud, the assurance with which the boy grasps his destiny is immediately striking. To the filmmaker who questions his age, he retorts: “But you said you were looking for a guy who was cocky?” Up until this point, the boy had been on the defensive. When Truffaut asks “So are you cocky?”, he unhesitatingly replies “Yes!”, giving one of the rare smiles in this interview, filmed on 16mm.

Léaud wanted the part and, without having to think about it, he knew to behave in character, to give them what the film needed. They were looking for someone cocky. So he’d do cocky.

His thinking is direct, straightforward, and effective. Without a moment’s hesitation, he shoots back with the words the director has just used. Before even getting onto the set. Before even being given the part, Léaud, barely 14 at the time, is already in the movie. Ready to become what others want of him, without appearing to play act. He was cocky, without being rude. He made the words of others his own, and his life became a long, uninterrupted film. This instinct arose from the desire to occupy a world he must had known something of through his mother, the actress Jacqueline Pierreux. Léaud wanted to make movies. For cinema to become his life. And so it was to be.

When I consider his extraordinary trajectory, I cannot help but see in it something that has, inevitably, been put aside. That unmentionable loss of an adolescence which could have gone another way stays with this actor, he of such distinctive, precise gestures, and such a soft voice.

A touch of melancholy is visible in his eyes, and in the set of his mouth. It seems to me that Léaud managed to take the “blues” of the great silent movie comedians into a truly dramatic register. Always on the move, always ahead of the others, as if his actions were transposed from the 18 fps of the silents to the speed of the talkies, he represents the evolution of a Buster Keaton in a modern world. Above all, Truffaut succeeded in giving him that poetry of gesture that can confer on the ordinary a different meaning altogether. Thus a bottle-opener can become a ring.

Like an “auteur”, Léaud was recognizable regardless of the director with whom he was working. And yet, as Philippon noted, he is undeniably the most mimetic of his generation of actors. “He has Truffaut’s profile when he works with Truffaut; the voice of Godard when with Godard, the look of Eustache when working with Eustache”.

Before being Antoine Doinel, he was Jean-Pierre Léaud. “The movie-mad guy who embraced the New Wave”, the young actor who forged links between the filmmakers in the cinema of the modern era. Godard, Rivette, Eustache, Varda, Bertolucci, Glauber Rocha, Pasolini, Garrel… and the list continues… into the next generation, with Olivier Assayas and Bertrand Bonello to mention just a few.

Jean-Pierre Léaud, the “Cahiers actor”, the youth Truffaut deemed “solitary, anti-social and on the verge of revolt”, became one of the greatest brokers of that experience of cinema that changed the representation of people and the world once and for all. It is to him that I owe my own love of modern French cinema, it is from him I took my cue, he who led me from one film to another, and thus to my realization that film is above all a vision of the world, and that a filmmaker is someone who can offer the world a vision.

So I can find no better words than these of Truffaut to conclude this brief profile in the form of a love letter.

“I will add only that Jean-Pierre Léaud is, in my view, the best actor of his generation and it would be unfair to forget that for him Antoine Doinel is just one of the characters he has played, one of the strings to his bow, one of the costumes he put on, one of the schools of his childhood.”

Carlo Chatrian

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