Even before François Truffaut shot his first feature, The 400 Blows (1959), he was planning a follow-up film which would show what happened to the young protagonist of Blows, Antoine Doinel, after he had done his time in reform school, followed by a short, unhappy stint in the army. That his early idea of what Doinel as a young man would be like was radically different from the rather buffoonish character who eventually reached the screen is evidenced by the fact that one proposed scenario became the basis for Jean-Luc Godard’s debut film Breathless (1959), with Jean-Paul Belmondo as an amoral cop killer.
In any event, the second Doinel feature was shelved and it wasn’t until 1962, when Truffaut was asked to contribute a half-hour short to an anthology film called Love at Twenty, that he revisited the character with a vignette called "Antoine and Colette." Jean-Pierre Léaud once again played Doinel, as he would in the ensuing features, and though the film has only the merest sliver of a story – Doinel falls in love with the beautiful Colette (Marie-France Pisier), who can barely bring herself to acknowledge his existence – it also has that beguiling early Truffaut mix of charming facade and despairing depths.
"Antoine and Colette" also established the nature of the ongoing Léaud-Doinel character, and if there’s a problem with this short and its three feature-length sequels it’s that there’s hardly a moment when one truly believes that this person is a young adult version of the boy in The 400 Blows. The "original" Doinel was wily, intelligent, mischievous and emotionally battered. The grown-up Doinel is much less fleshed-out; a clueless walker through the serio-comic life Truffaut has devised for him.
The feature-length Doinel installment finally arrived with 1968’s Stolen Kisses (at the DFT, "Antoine and Colette" will be shown as a prelude to Kisses). Plotted like a comedy, it begins with Doinel, now in his early 20s, being dishonorably discharged from the army, and follows him through a series of odd jobs, the main one as a private eye – one discerns a touch of Jerry Lewis in this unlikely series of events. At first the humor is very broad and rather dispiriting – too many nudge-nudge sex jokes and awkwardly executed attempts at physical humor – but once the film settles on the dilemmas of Doinel’s love life, the director’s signature and somber romanticism come to the fore.
Kisses is an odd film – though it was immensely popular in its day – ending on a cryptic and foreboding note which turns out to be a set-up for its sequel, Bed and Board (1970). In Bed, Antoine is married, seemingly happily, and though the poor sap still can’t hold down any single job for long, the film manages to seem both more improvisational and more coherent than Kisses. It centers on the difficulties of young married life, difficulties compounded by Doinel’s fickle temperament and an egregiously pointless affair with a mysterious young Japanese woman (Hiroko Beghauer).
The final installment of the Doinel cycle is 1979’s Love on the Run, a film which has a lot of resonance for those who have been following the story thus far and probably none for those who haven’t. Spiced with clips from the past films – all the way back to The 400 Blows – it’s basically a series of set pieces: confrontations between Doinel and his ex-wife Christine (Claude Jade), his old flame Colette (Pisier, all grown up) and, in a genuinely moving episode, one of his deceased mother’s old lovers (Julien Bertheau).
If the Doinel cycle seems rather plain compared to Truffaut’s energetic and at times surreal early work, it’s partly because the director always aspired to become a craftsman rather than an artist, though he couldn’t help but be both – and the Doinel films are not without their surrealistic outbursts.
Day for Night (1973) is his tribute to the worker-director, with Truffaut himself playing a non-auteurist artisan trying to make a movie with the unpromising title of Meet Pamela, starring a moody young actor played by Jean-Pierre Léaud – which, for Truffaut fans, already makes it a house of mirrors. But the film stands on its own as a tribute to a messily collaborative art and is, perhaps, the only Truffaut film whose bright surface doesn’t seem to be covering a dark undertow.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.