A double bill of sorts on Jean-Pierre Leaud on Mubi is just the excuse we need to re-examine the career of the legendary French actor.
The streaming platform is showing Leaud’s breakthrough The 400 Blows as well as his most recent movie, The Death of Louis the XIV. Also on Mubi is another rarely screened title, The Rise and Fall of A Small Film Company.
From the youthful exuberance of his earlier performances to the graceful late-life reckoning of ageing, ailments and the inexorable advent of mortality, Leaud has deservedly achieved the status of a movie immortal. Over six decades and counting, 77-year-old Leaud has cemented his reputation as one of the most accomplished and versatile actors of his generation.
He is also widely acknowledged as the fictional alter ego of the influential French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, with whom he frequently collaborated over the years. Truffaut gave Leaud his first break by casting the then 13-year-old as the rebellious juvenile Antoine Doinel in his celebrated quasi-autobiographical debut The 400 Blows in 1959.
The film’s popularity spurred Truffaut to further explore Doinel’s character as well as Leaud’s powerful persona in four subsequent films – Antoine and Collette (a segment from the 1962 omnibus film Love at 20), Stolen Kisses (1958), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). Clearly, Truffaut, Leaud and Doinel shared a strong bond and all three almost seemed to have grown up together.
In contrast to Truffaut’s humane Renoiresque films, the Jean-Luc Godard movies see Leaud in a different register. In Masculin Feminin (1966), about the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola”, according to Godard, and the dark crime comedy Made in USA (1966), Leaud portrays insouciance and a who-gives-a-damn attitude. Leaud continues to bring characteristic intensity to Godard’s agit-prop diatribes such as Week-end (1967) and Le Gai Savoir (1969).
A relatively less-seen Godard gem is The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company (1986). Commissioned for an anthology film, Godard’s episode derives from James Hadley Chase’s novel The Soft Centre. Replete with playful allusions to art and cinema, the film has a pulsating soundtrack of tunes by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.
Leaud plays a flustered television director who, in what is surely a first for the actor, sports a moustache and frantically strives to cope with casting calls, ineffectual assistants and several tomes spread across his desk.
Leaud has worked with several other estimable French directors such as Jacques Rivette, Agnes Varda, Jean Eustache, Olivier Assayas, Phillippe Garrel and Bertrand Bonello. Leaud has also starred in foreign language films by such masters as Tsai Ming-liang, Aki Kaurismaki, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Glauber Rocha and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Catalan director Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis the XIV was made in 2016, 57 years after The 400 Blows. The meticulously mounted historical epic centres on Leaud’s poignant portrayal of the final days of the Sun King. Set in Versailles circa 1715, the action is primarily confined to the ailing monarch’s bed chamber.
Featuring Leaud in splendid period costumes and a massive wig and in a largely silent role, the film serves as a summation of his extraordinary career. A lengthy climactic close-up of an immobile Leaud gazing at the camera is a throwback to the legendary freeze-frame shot of his evocative visage in The 400 Blows.
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