A big happy 70th birthday to Jean-Pierre Léaud. When the Pacific Film Archive programmed a retrospective back in early 2008, Juliet Clark wrote: “If the French New Wave has a face, it might be the beaky, piercing-eyed visage of Jean-Pierre Léaud. In 1959, at age fifteen, Léaud made his debut as Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows; over the next two decades, he would play alter ego not only to Truffaut, but to a generation that grew up (or failed to) in parallel with him. For Jean-Luc Godard, he was one of the ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ in films like Masculine Feminine (1966) and La Chinoise (1967). Later, Léaud worked with Jacques Rivette in the epic Out 1 (1972) and stalked through the wreckage of the late-sixties dream in Jean Eustache’s anti-epic The Mother and the Whore (1973), a film and a performance that obliterate sentimentality. The effect of all these collaborations is cumulative: when Léaud appears in a film by Aki Kaurismäki or Olivier Assayas, his history appears with him.”
The following year, the Austrian Film Museum put together a retrospective comprised of over forty films—and accompanied it with an exhibition. Programmers noted that, by the time the French New Wave was no longer new, “celebrated international directors such as Jerzy Skolimowski, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Glauber Rocha and Bernardo Bertolucci had already discovered Léaud… His status as cinéfils, a son of (modern) cinema, continues to define Léaud’s career. Major auteurs such as Philippe Garrel, Luc Moullet, Raúl Ruiz, Catherine Breillat, Aki Kaurismäki, Olivier Assayas, Bertrand Bonello and Tsai Ming-liang have done more than just cast him as a fascinating actor whose admittedly ‘unprofessional acting’ has its own special qualities.”
You’ve seen the clip from Léaud’s audition for his debut; here he is discussing The 400 Blows at Cannes in 1959
“Léaud, unlike so many male actors in particular, is at his strongest when his face shows weakness,” wrote Rhys Graham for Senses of Cinema nearly 14 years ago, “and his performances seem to be most incisive when he appears most confused. For this reason, he is one of the great performers to act as a medium in communicating elusive and emotive directorial intention to an audience. He brims with the Paris-cool that seems to keep French film of the ’60s perpetually in fashion, he wears a scarf like no actor can, but he performs through the most unfashionable of emotions: vulnerability.”
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