Francois Truffaut doesn’t want you to get to know Antoine Doinel. Admittedly, the idea may seem an absurdity, given the five films the auteur devoted to his cinematic alter ego, played in every instance by Jean-Pierre Léaud. But apart from the scrappy, mischief-making boy presented in the first installment of what is collectively termed “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel,” the director keeps his subject (and himself) emotionally out of view. In the 400 Blows, Antoine divulges freely and the environment in which he faces the constant threat of abandonment fits in neatly with his inevitable slide into truancy and petty crime. However, this is the closest, most scrutinizing and evocative look we get at him. When we meet Antoine again, albeit briefly, in Antoine & Colette, he is more or less upright, in pursuit of a girl who spurns him. He has cleaned up, but only in clothes and not character: in one scene, he pushes himself on Colette with more greed than passion or romance. Though Antoine’s genuinely interested in her, an interloper steals her away.

In Stolen Kisses, nearly 10 years after his detention as a juvenile in 400 Blows, the smirking Antoine, “like a dog that goes anywhere but where it’s called,” is back in trouble and behind bars–in a Parisian brig following a short and uncooperative stint in the army, about to be dishonorably discharged. He embarks on another errant quest, this time to capture the heart of the reserved but charming Christine Darbon (Claude Jade), but the young, self-styled romantic, adrift, running his hands through his hair, bouncing between jobs and governed by restlessness, simply can’t get it right. His situation is invariably hopeless, even when he isn’t availing himself of his own progress and mucking things up with Christine with an almost sociopathic disregard: this is the world closest to Truffaut’s heart, where “tout le monde traîte tout le monde“–everyone betrays everyone. And Antoine’s apparent affections for Christine are similarly colored by his now-hot, now-cold love letters, his penchant for impulsive visits to brothels and his distracted interest in a shoe shop owner’s wife. In the same sense that, to Antoine, appearing “professional” means clasping his hands behind his back as he walks, Antoine is “in love.” He exhibits some of the outward symptoms, but there’s almost no depth to them and he clearly hasn’t a clue.


Mostly blank-faced, disinterested, two-faced or otherwise inexpressive (“I wouldn’t tell you if I was upset, but I’m not upset,” Antoine informs Christine), the young man is kept from us, by Truffaut, at arm’s length. While assuredly an intentional choice, the strategy is, as the leaden sentimentality of some of aesthetic successor Wes Anderson’s work demonstrates, a double-edged cheese knife. Antoine shrugs, “Well, that’s life,” when an unscrupulous private eye costs him his job and when he scolds Christine for not engendering admiration in him. He cannot reliably expect his eventual romantic victory to be celebrated with sweeping, swelling strings, but this is precisely what Truffaut provides, unbelievably so and counter to the interior logic of his own film.

Similar to Jules in Jules and Jim, who after the denouement is almost relieved about being finally unburdened of his tempestuous compatriots, the tender passion the film’s end result requires of Antoine is too much for Truffaut–or Stolen Kisses–to pursue, and in impatient expiration and the extinguishing of these bottled-up impulses, a sense of relief, not completely deserved, is supposed to follow. The conclusion itself is authentic, but the studious Truffaut forgot the more essential part of authenticity: heart. By the time Antoine and Christine are approached by her mysterious man who has been tailing her the entire film, a deranged chômeur who professes to her his undying and unconditional devotion, Antoine, who comments afterward disaffectedly, is almost an apparition. Like the engagement ring Antoine offers Christine, like nearly all his efforts toward winning her up to that point, their love, too, is a kind of lie. But then again, as Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in Jules and Jim and the director’s onetime love interest attested, Truffaut thought the sentiment, “I’ll love you forever” a tremendous falsehood. And Antoine circa 400 Blows himself admits, fighting a smile, “Oh, I lie now and then I suppose.” My guess is that Claude Jade, who was engaged to the director during filming for Stolen Kisses and paralleling the life of her character, probably caught wind of it too, sooner or later.

by Joe Clinkenbeard

See Also: Oeuvre: Truffaut- The Bride Wore Black

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