Francois Truffaut has long been respected as one of the greatest directors of all time. Amongst a canon that includes classics such as Jules et Jim, Day for Night and The Last Metro, perhaps Truffaut’s most widely celebrated work is his debut The 400 Blows, a fantastic, semi-autobiographical film about a wayward adolescent boy called Antoine Doinel. The 400 Blows was one of the defining films of the French New Wave and for me Truffaut’s beautiful, trailblazing but accessible films always stood out over the much-lauded but wilfully esoteric work of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette or the excessively wordy films of Eric Rohmer. For most people, however, the classic status of The 400 Blows has overshadowed the four other films about Antoine Doinel that followed (or, in many cases, prevented them from even knowing that these films exist). Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has recently been a cause celebre for its unusual approach of being shot over eleven years during which Linklater has been able to capture his actors actually growing up. In a way, Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series was a forerunner for this approach, since Antoine is played throughout all five films by Jean-Pierre Leaud, although Truffaut made a film for each stage of his aging process across a twenty year period. Earlier this year Artificial Eye released all the Antoine Doinel films on DVD and I took the opportunity, having loved The 400 Blows, to finally watch the other entries in the series

love at 20Antoine et Colette

Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut
Producers: Pierre Roustang
Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Marie-France Pisier
Year: 1962
Country: France
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 32 mins

Antoine and Colette was Truffaut’s first tentative attempt at a follow-up to his most popular work, made as part of the anthology film Love at Twenty. Oddly, Artificial Eye have included this as an extra on the DVD of Bed and Board, the fourth part of the Antoine Doinel series, and not on The 400 Blows or Stolen Kisses, which would have made more chronological sense. It is advisable to seek out Antoine et Colette before watching its sequels, as it works best as a tonally similar epilogue to The 400 Blows and Antoine’s young boyhood and it’s hard to come back to it after the change in tone that characterises the next instalment. Sticking with the semi-autobiographical approach, Antoine et Colette picks up with the seventeen year old Antoine, who now has a job and apartment of his own but still spends much of his time with Rene, his best friend from The 400 Blows (again portrayed by Patrick Auffay, although this is the last new footage we see of the character). However, when Antoine sees Colette for the first time he falls madly in love, even though she remains largely indifferent to him. Antoine et Colette charts Antoine’s short, awkward attempt to court the object of his affection, in which he ultimately succeeds only in endearing himself to her parents. With its sketchy realism and short runtime, Antoine et Colette has a nice improvisational feel. Truffaut himself remembers the experience of making it as a carefree and happy one, since he was given free rein to do what he wanted. The result is an interesting transitional work which is best appreciated as part of the whole Antoine Doinel saga, particularly since it introduces the character’s obsession with the opposite sex, a theme that would dominate the remaining films in the series.

Stolen Kisses

StolenDirector: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut, Claude de Givray, Bernard Revon
Producers: Francois Truffaut , Marcel Berbert
Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claude Jade, Delphine Seyrig
Year: 1968
Country: France
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 91 mins

By the time Truffaut returned to Antoine Doinel for the third time, his career had hit a critical and commercial rough patch, with The Soft Skin and Fahrenheit 451 (his first colour film and his only film in the English language) receiving mixed reactions and The Bride Wore Black provoking open hostility in Truffaut’s native France. Given this recent track record, the allure of returning to familiar ground must have been strong, although Stolen Kisses proved to be a different but no less brilliant chapter in the story. Picking up with Antoine as a young man in his early 20s, Stolen Kisses is the lightest and most comedic of the series and while it still tends towards episodic incidents, here the plot is more fanciful and leavened with a good deal more black humour, quirky characters and moments of slapstick. Given the prestige associated with this character, moving in this direction could have been risky but instead it works brilliantly and while the world he inhabits seems to have moved on since The 400 Blows, this is still recognisably Antoine Doinel struggling to make sense of it. Jean-Pierre Leaud’s performance in The 400 Blows had been exceptional but there was something about the melancholic nature of Antoine et Colette that sapped the energy from him. Perhaps it was just an accurate portrayal of a brooding 17 year old in love for the first time but in any case Leaud has carefully retuned his performance under Truffaut’s expert direction to fit the breezier direction of Stolen Kisses.

Opening brilliantly with Doinel being discharged from the army, a scene in which we immediately glimpse the little boy of The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses then sees Antoine stumble through a few attempts to find work which ultimately finds him inadvertently recruited by a private detective agency which specialises in adulterous spouses. Alongside this new endeavour, Antoine is attempting to woo his latest sweetheart Christine (the first appearance in the series by the brilliant Claude Jade, whose innocent but savvy take on one of the pivotal women in Antoine’s life is one of the great joys of these wonderful films), a beautiful young violinist whose obvious interest in Antoine is marred by his clumsy forcefulness and on-off interest in her. Antoine’s interest in Christine only wanders when a new woman catches his eye and this fickle obsession with romantic extremes will dog Antoine and all the women in his life for the next three films. Stolen Kisses moves from incident to incident with great pacing and an unpredictable mood that retains the tinge of melancholia that characterises the whole series but buries it more heavily beneath moments of tongue-in-cheek humour, lyrical romance and just a hint of 60s gratuitousness (a big pair of boobs near the beginning seem unnecessarily dwelled upon but such uncharacteristic moments are few and far between). The resulting film found Truffaut back in critical favour, with largely positive reviews and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.

BedBed and Board

Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut, Claude de Givray, Bernard Revon
Producers: Francois Truffaut , Marcel Berbert
Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claude Jade, Hiroko Berghauer
Year: 1970
Country: France
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 100 mins

Stolen Kisses marked a tonal shift in the Antoine Doinel series but this tone was largely maintained throughout the final two films. Bed and Board adds a little more social drama to the mix as we explore Antoine and Christine’s marriage, but for the most part it thrives on the same melancholia-tinged whimsy as its direct predecessor. Truffaut has set up a lovely scenario in which we get to see all the ups and downs of the young newlyweds’ lives, alongside the comings and goings of the people in the surrounding area with whom they interact on a daily basis. Although superficially similar to Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board replaces the quirkier slapstick elements with something bordering on magical-realism, as Antoine’s experiments with dying flowers a different colour render unlikely and sometimes cartoonish results. Truffaut makes this unusual device work with the simplest of tongue-in-cheek visual tricks in which the audience is purposefully made well aware of how it is done. It should be jarring but the symbolic significance is made more obvious in a later scene when some flowers open almost magically (in a rare moment of crude animation) to reveal the secrets behind their petals. For the most part, the rest of the film avoids such outlandishness in favour of an improvisatory charm as we watch Antoine and Christine both enjoying and struggling with their marriage.

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Anyone who has seen the previous films in the series will already have guessed that an infidelity is on the horizon but Truffaut makes it clear that Antoine will not just hop into bed with any woman. Early in the film we meet another lady who works near Antoine and Christine and makes it clear constantly that Antoine can have her anytime he wants but he is not remotely interested. Crucially the woman with whom he chooses to engage in extramarital activity is attractive to him because of what she represents rather than who she is. Once Antoine has unravelled her mystery, he finds being with her an empty experience and longs for his wife. Bed and Board gives Claude Jade a welcome opportunity for more screen-time and she puts in the best performance of her three appearances. Jean-Pierre Leaud continues to be excellent as Antoine, a character so well known to audiences by this point that the performance is crucial to maintain the already established relationship between viewer and protagonist. Although it was not quite a warmly received as Stolen Kisses and has been largely overlooked in subsequent years, Bed and Board is probably my second favourite in the Doinel series (after The 400 Blows) as it has slightly more substance than the more fanciful Stolen Kisses.

LoveLove on the Run

Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut, Marie-France Pisier, Jean Aurel, Suzanne Schiffman
Producers: Francois Truffaut , Marcel Berbert
Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claude Jade, Marie-France Pisier, Dorothee
Year: 1979
Country: France
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 94 mins

Having made two Antoine Doinel films in fairly quick succession, Truffaut did not return to the character for nine years. Love on the Run was to be the final chapter in the series and, unfortunately, it does not go out on a high. Love on the Run isn’t a really bad film but it is disappointingly short on new material. The structure of this film is like a sitcom clip show in which the best parts of previous episodes are grafted onto a limp framing plot and everyone watching wishes they were just watching one of the episodes the clips came from instead. Love on the Run starts on the day of Antoine and Christine’s divorce. Characteristically, Antoine has forgotten and has to rush there after Christine reminds him. Despite the divorce, the relationship between Antoine and Christine remains platonically tender and there are no hackneyed hints at reconciliation. These early scenes are the best in the film, mainly because of Claude Jade’s presence but sadly she largely disappears from the narrative after this and instead we focus on the reappearance of Colette, whom we last saw in a brief cameo in Stolen Kisses. Played once again (and very well) by Marie-France Pisier, the revival of Colette is a surprising but irritating plot twist since the viewer has little relationship with this character at all. Although she is largely a plot device (she buys Antoine’s autobiographical novel and as she reads it we revisit scenes from all four previous films), we also delve into elements of her own life which seem completely extraneous.

The majority of Love on the Run is made up of the clips from the previous films, which just reminds the viewer of how much better they were. Truffaut apparently wanted a happy ending for his series of films, which comes by way of Antoine’s reconciliation with his latest lover Sabine (played shakily by Dorothee), but there is certainly nothing special about this woman to lead us to believe that Antoine’s relationship with her will be any more successful than his previous ones. Antoine is too wayward and extreme a character for any ending, other than his own death, to ever be final. The impression we are left with as the credits role is that he will mess up this relationship with further infidelities so we can’t feel too happy for him or his unfortunate lover. I certainly felt at the end of Bed and Board that Christine at least understood Antoine better and, while their marriage may have always been on shaky ground, I would have preferred it had Truffaut left the series there, with an equally happy ending of sorts.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that Love on the Run came out before people owned home videos, so films couldn’t be taken home and the chance to relive the previous chapters of Antoine Doinel’s life may have been more welcome to fans of the series. However, the negative reviews do not necessarily bear this out and Truffaut reacted to this disappointment by admitting that he knew he was making a mistake while in the process of making the film. Another criticism is that, unlike the previous films, Love on the Run cannot be seen as a standalone piece. While watching them as a series greatly enhances their appeal, all of the previous four films can be enjoyed without knowledge of the other three. Love on the Run relies greatly on comprehensive knowledge of its predecessors but the payoff for this loyalty is a deeply inferior film.

Despite its disappointing ending, the Antoine Doinel series of films is a fascinating and largely masterful experience. The 400 Blows may be the undisputed masterpiece but Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board are both worthy of being considered alongside Truffaut’s best work as well. Having left Antoine behind, Truffaut capped his career with a final run of greatness in the masterpiece The Last Metro, the hugely underrated The Woman Next Door and the lightly enjoyable Finally, Sunday!, a film that recalls the whimsical charm of Stolen Kisses. It’s great to know that, even if Antoine Doinel did not go out on a high, his alter-ego did.

Stolen Kisses was released on DVD and Bluray by Artificial Eye on 25 August 2014, with Bed and Board and Love on the Run following on 29 September 2014. All three are great releases, featuring short presentation about each film and full length commentaries. The Bed and Board release also features the short film Antoine et Colette as an extra and this short film has its own presentation and commentary too.

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