Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Francois Truffaut's "Antoine Doinel" film series

***light spoilers ahead; read with trepidation if you plan on watching all five films***

A few weeks ago I watched the interesting documentary Two in the Wave that is about Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, their friendship, their rivalry and the French New Wave. I've never warmed to Goddard but have long loved the work of Truffaut. It was good timing as SJ and I have been slowly winding our way through Truffaut's wonderful series of films on the character "Antoine Doinel." The "Antoine" films capture all the qualities I love in a Truffaut film: the combination of serious and comic, an overtly sweet romanticism, the palpable joy of living and the foreboding sense of "Frenchness" that covers pretty much everything on the screen.

"Antoine Doinel" showed up in Truffaut's first film The 400 Blows in 1959 and it was the first depth charge for what would become known as the French New Wave. Jean-Pierre Leaud played the 12 year old Doinel, as he did the next four installments over the next two decades. As Leaud ages, so does Doinel, although the character never seems to truly "grow up," continuously getting into romantic troubles and inable to hold down a job. Leaud is the perfect cinematic foil for Truffaut's alter-ego in the series as I'm not sure Truffaut would have been able to continue had he not had such a rapport with Leaud as his leading man.

The second time Antoine shows up is for the only short film of the bunch with the 1962 Antoine and Colette. The charming 32 minute film sees Doinel start up a familiar topic for Truffaut to mine in the future: romantic obsession. He spots a woman he finds fetching at a concert and begins to pursue her to no avail. No amount of wooing can win the heart of Colette it seems and the groundwork is laid for the films that come next in the series.

Stolen Kisses comes in 1968 and starts with Doinel being kicked out of the army for unfit behavior. He immediately gets in touch with Christine (Claude Jade) even though she just wants to be friends. Doinel is persistent though and gradually she gets drawn into the romantic whimsy of the character. Along with the romance is some comic material related to Antoine's inability to hold down a job with a chunk of the story involving him bumbling around as a private detective. Stolen Kisses is my second favorite of the films--it's hard to top the always watchable The 400 Blows--as it just has a terrific feel to it. Perfectly paced and full of fun scenes and characters, it's a joyous trip into the foibles of poor Antoine and his work/love life. Classic stuff from Francois Truffaut.

Just two years later in 1970 comes Bed and Board, the fourth installment in the series. Antoine is now married to Christine and the scenes early in the film of their wedded life are filled with some of the same light-hearted comedy and charm that makes up the bulk of Stolen Kisses. As the film evolves though, there is a tonal shift and it becomes a little more somber and introspective as Antoine begins to rue the mistakes he is making in the marriage--starting up an affair with an exotic Japanese woman for example. Growing into an adult has taken some of the youthful exuberance from Antoine and Bed and Board hints that it might not be as easy for Antoine to get what he wants in the future. Adults seem to find it harder to bounce back from failure than young people and Antoine finally might be on the path in growing up.

Or maybe not. Love on the Run comes nine years after Bed and Board and finds Antoine and Christine divorced whilst Antoine is up to his usual shenanigans with a variety of women. There's even a return of Colette, now a successful woman in her 30s that piques the interest in Antoine (who doesn't?). Love on the Run does something I didn't like at all--it uses a bunch of scenes from all the previous films cut into the story. This wasn't a good idea. I've already seen those films so didn't need to re-watch scenes I already know and remember. The new story was really hampered by this continuous interruption of the fresh to insert this old footage.

If you love French cinema, do yourself a favor and watch the Antoine Doinel series of films by Francois Truffaut. Even if you've seen 400 Blows, return to it and then follow it up with the four charmers that follow, you'll be happy you did. I just wish Truffaut would have come back for a sixth installment.

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