The totemic power of Jean-Pierre Léaud extends far beyond the French New Wave, the film movement for which he will forever remain the most paradigmatic performer. In the éminence grise phase of his career, which began about two decades ago, Léaud has more than once played a filmmaker whose personal and professional struggles seem emblematic of France’s own cinema history. In his most recent movie, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV — the release of which on Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center occasions the organization’s twenty-title Léaud retrospective — the actor, as the ailing monarch of the title, would seem to stand in for the nation itself.
But first he was the onscreen surrogate of one man: François Truffaut. Thirteen at the time he auditioned for the part of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (1959), the director’s semi-autobiographical debut feature, Léaud recalled in a 1985 interview what impressed him the most about the man who became his mentor: “He spoke to children like they were adults. He realized that children understood things better than adults did. He was purely intuitive. We operated in a sort of complicity.” Gentle but never sentimental, The 400 Blows isn’t just the best of the five films in the cycle that follows Doinel’s growth (and occasional regression) through 1979’s Love on the Run — it’s also one of the greatest ever made about the injustices of childhood. The cowlicked adolescent Léaud plays (and was), chafing against the arbitrary power wielded by grown-ups, is famously freeze-framed at the end; the boy’s features, not yet fully formed, will become more beautiful and delicate with each subsequent project Léaud took on, no matter the director, over the next 15 years.
All seven films that Léaud made with Truffaut are part of the FSLC retro, but they don’t overshadow the actor’s renowned collaborations with other Nouvelle Vague godheads. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin (1966), a tart ode to “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” Léaud’s Paul, a hapless café-dweller courting an indifferent yé-yé singer, shows political leanings (chanting, in charmingly accented English, and with upright fist, “U.S., go home!”) that would shift as far left as possible in JLG’s La Chinoise (1967), about a Maoist cell of student revolutionaries. Both films evince Léaud’s wild-eyed fervor, a zeal that becomes all-consuming madness in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Spectre (1972), a condensed, rearranged (re-deranged?) version of the thirteen-hour Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971). No matter the running time, each iteration of Out 1 stands as an extraordinary artifact of post-’68, post-utopian paranoia and despair, the dread becoming more spellbinding whenever Léaud’s Colin, driving himself mad to decode cryptic messages about a secret society, is in the frame.
In The Mother and the Whore (1973), by post–New Wave legend Jean Eustache, Léaud plays another indelible director-by-proxy character, this one cruel, pitiless, vainglorious — the anti-Doinel. The project reteamed auteur and actor, who first worked together on Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes (1967), made from film stock left over from Masculin Féminin and starring Léaud as perpetual idler Daniel, who says yes to a week-long gig as Father Christmas to earn enough francs to buy a long-coveted duffle coat. Less than an hour long, Santa Claus affectionately recalls the fumbling peacocking of late adolescence, warmth completely absent in the scalding self-reproach found in The Mother and the Whore, in which Léaud, playing Alexandre, a Beatle-booted and bescarved Parisian dandy in a fractious open relationship, dramatizes events from Eustache’s very recent past. A voluble dirge, the love-triangle epic looks askance at the cultural revolution. But the film’s most withering judgments are reserved for the ostensible hero, a coddled coxcomb sure to drown in his own torrent of words, each peroration delivered by Léaud as an aria of noxious narcissism.
Two of the best roles written for Léaud since he turned fifty feature the actor as a desiccated filmmaker, an unstable auteur decades removed from his triumphs of the Sixties. In Olivier Assayas’s limber meta-movie Irma Vep (1996), Léaud plays René Vidal, a washed-up Nouvelle Vague director determined to remake Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade’s famed 1915 silent serial, with the Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung (here playing a version of herself) in the title role. Prone to tantrums and mental collapse, René also possesses an dignity and, by film’s end, proves himself to be an avant-garde genius; Léaud’s is demonstrated by his unerring timing, knowing just how to mine his character’s outsize outbursts for pathos, not buffoonery. The eponymous smut maestro Léaud plays in Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer (2001; not in the FSLC series), appears incapable of committing to anyone or anything, particularly to his latest hard-core production; he’s a pleasure principal whose stasis seems analogous to France’s own, a stagnation made more resonant by the Léaud’s weary gravitas.
That enervation is pushed to the extreme in The Death of Louis XIV, the latest of Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s idiosyncratic studies of canonical figures, whether historical or literary. Save for the opening scene, in which the decrepit sovereign is wheeled around the grounds of his estate at dawn, all of Louis XIV is confined to a few rooms in Versailles, where fretting consultants cluster around the Sun King as his health worsens, his gangrenous leg turning into an obsidian-black stump. Buried under a series of extravagant perukes and swaddled in elaborate brocade, Léaud spends the majority of the next two hours recumbent and motionless; an almost imperceptible twitch in his cheek — shot, like most of this pleasingly perverse chamber drama, in long-held close-up — counts as one the monarch’s more sustained physical exertions. Delicately balanced between grandeur and absurdity, Serra’s film maintains this tricky equilibrium largely thanks to the icon whose face fills the screen. Louis XIV reigned for 72 years, the same number of birthdays Léaud has celebrated; in his six-decade career, the actor, no matter the role or his age, has become synonymous with cinema, with a country. To paraphrase the Sun King’s famous declaration: L’état, c’est lui.
‘Jean-Pierre Léaud, from Antoine Doinel to Louis XIV’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
March 29–April 6
The Death of Louis XIV
Directed by Albert Serra
Opens March 31, Film Society of Lincoln Center