Passion Player

A New Wave Icon’s Life at the Movies

Just when nostalgia for the New Wave seemed to have subsided to make way for a new era in French cinema, along comes that movement's most cherished icon, the boy who grew into a man on camera. Jean-Pierre Léaud is now a fragile but spirited 54, yet he is far from an elder statesman. "Luck has been with me," he says in a voice that is at times hushed and cracked. "I still have the same joy when I step before the camera that I did when I was 14."

Léaud was in town to kick off a retrospective of films by the man who allowed him to experience that joy in the first place, François Truffaut. "François was my alter ego. He occupied the center of my spirit, and our relation to each other was absolutely direct. And when I met him, he immediately passed his love of cinema on to me. To really love something, to have a true passion for something, to want to know at all times the interesting things going on in the world of filmmaking, it actually helped us, in a way, to live." He spoke affectionately of Antoine Doinel, the character with whom he began his career and whom he would later play four more times, as though he were an old friend. "Doinel was someone who both of us knew intimately. It wasn't me—he was someone I would see from time to time in films. Day for Night was a little odd, because my character in that movie was like Doinel's cousin. But it took more work to do a film like Two English Girls, where François really tried to go deeper with the actors."

In a short time, Léaud mapped out his life at the movies with the care and precision of a filmmaker plotting a sequence in his head. "Since I've been giving these interviews, it's come to me that the raison d'être of my life is to make good films with real auteurs" (this is, after all, a man who has worked with everyone from Bertolucci to Breillat, Pasolini to Skolimowski, Cocteau to Assayas). After giving a scathing assessment of Jacques Rivette's legendary, post–May '68, 13-hour improvisational epic Out One ("It was a very exciting adventure for a young man, but I wouldn't want to repeat it. I guess that the vampiric, sadistic methods that Rivette used to make that film were a part of the moment"), he carefully considered my question about his unusually close associations with many of his directors during the '60s and into the '70s. "There have been two periods in my inner life, two idées fixes. The first period consisted of me working with directors with whom I totally identified, like François, like Jean Eustache. When I was working for François, I was like François. When I worked for Eustache, I was like Eustache. Same with Godard. In the second period, which I am living now, as we speak, I no longer identify with the director but with my character, and I get great pleasure working with someone like Olivier Assayas, who writes so well and is so intelligent." Then, with that look of wide-eyed, comically clairvoyant inspiration that has put a fine, sparkling point on so many of his performances, he added: "The third period I'm not so sure about—it could arrive any minute now."

 
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