Jean-Pierre Leaud is one of France’s greatest cultural exports. He is one of the rare actors to have grown up on the screen, one movie at a time, long before the characters from Boyhood and the Harry Potter films. Leaud first appeared as a juvenile delinquent in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959 and became one of the poster boys of the Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave. At 72, Leaud is as active as his health permits. He appears in Spanish director Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, an account of the last days of the French monarch. The biopic is one of the highlights of the Mumbai Film Festival (October 20-27).
Leaud’s mischievous and curious face first filled the screen in The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s seminal movie about the troubled young Antoine Doinel’s runs-in with the law. Antoine Doinel became so emblematic of French New Wave cinema that the name would be used interchangeably with Jean-Pierre Leaud for much of his career.
The closing shot of The 400 Blows is one of the greatest in cinema. Antoine Doinel has escaped a juvenile detention home and is aimlessly running about. He runs towards the sea and then turns to the camera, his ambivalence captured in an unforgettable freeze frame.
Truffaut resurrected the character that was widely regarded as his alter ego in a series of films starting with the short film Antoine and Collete in 1962. Leaud was 17 at the time, and Truffaut would follow his progress in three more films all the way till 1979. Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979) follows the character’s romantic entanglements.
In between playing Antoine Doinel, Lead also appeared in fellow New Wave traveller Jean-Luc Godard’s films. The friendship that ended in bitter enmity between Truffaut and Godard has been captured by Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary Two in the Wave (2010). Leaud, who appeared in the increasingly divergent films by both the masters, was like a child torn between squabbling parents, Laurent reveals. Among Godard’s masterworks from the 1960s that stars Leaud is Masculin Feminin (1966), featuring the actor as a literary-minded ex-soldier in love with a pop star (Chantal Goya).
Leaud’s storied career and iconic status lend themselves beautifully to meta-cinema – movies that reflect on and critique the process of filmmaking. In critic-turned-director Oliver Assayas’s Irma Vep, Leaud plays a French filmmaker who is attempting to remake the French silent film Les Vampires with the actress Maggie Cheung (as herself).
In Tsai-Ming Liang’s What Time is it There? (2001), a watch seller in Taipei has an obsessive connection both with The 400 Blows and with a woman who has moved to Paris. The watch seller, played by Tsai-Ming’s muse Lee Kang-sheng, sets all his watches and clocks to Paris time. Meanwhile, the woman runs into Leaud in Paris.