How Boys Grow Up
by Pauline Kael
François Truffaut can seem to be inside one’s head in some movies and a total stranger, who barely interests one, in others. It would, however, be arrogant to assume that the Truffaut films one really loved (in my own case, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and The Wild Child) were works he had done for himself, while films one cared for not at all (in my case, say, The Bride Wore Black) and films that seemed pleasantly, charmingly negligible (in my case, Stolen Kisses and the new Bed and Board) were simply potboilers. I don’t think that’s true; I think that Truffaut must be more complicated than one at first assumes, and that even the featherweight films are not intended to be merely commercial. He’s a very special case: Godard’s films grow out of each other, Chabrol’s films have become like silvery sardines in a row, but Truffaut follows the rigorous simplicity of The Wild Child with Bed and Board, a flimsy, conventionally “beguiling” picture.
Probably there isn’t an American director who could do this sort of blithe marital comedy and keep his head above water. Truffaut’s touch — which is what this film depends on — is intuitively gentle, restrained, and unsentimental. There’s nothing cheap or mean in the manner of the picture, and nothing is overdone. And yet Bed and Board left me unmoved and in the strange situation of feeling cut off from a cheerful, responsive audience. As this series of Antoine Doinel films has gone on, Truffaut has had less and less to say about his once semi-autobiographical hero, and Jean-Pierre Léaud, who has played Antoine since The 400 Blows, has grown away from the role. Léaud has lost not only the exuberance of The 400 Blows but the child’s mutinous intelligence. He keeps his feelings to himself and is without an actor’s concentration, so he has no intensity. Léaud appears to have developed a dogged resistance to acting; he almost seems to be protecting himself against our invasion of his privacy. His manner is deadpan, with occasional quick changes of mood; it’s like a non-actor’s imitation of Buster Keaton — an imitation that doesn’t comprehend how Keaton’s body did everything for him, so the blank face was contrapuntal. And in Keaton’s kind of comedy the gags built. Truffaut’s visual humor is like Antoine’s deadpan humor — the jokes are eccentric, and they dry up fast.
In great comedies, the mechanics are themselves funny, and a routine doesn’t end with one joke. In Bed and Board, when you get the snapper, you understand why the seemingly random elements that went into the gag were introduced. In bad American comedies, one often sees the gag planted and waits for it to go off, but it isn’t really so good to see the unfunny mechanics retrospectively, either, especially when the joke is a highly reminiscent one. The snappers are often not good enough to make one forgive the limp preparation. When an enigmatic neighbor whom everyone calls “the strangler” turns out to be a TV comedian doing a Marienbad impersonation, it isn’t much of a payoff. The running joke about Antoine’s sponging friend is dispirited, and jokes like Antoine’s meeting his father-in-law at a bordello and engaging in a polite, “humane” exchange are exactly what one used to groan at in the pre-New Wave “Gallic” comedies. Scene by scene, the picture is underdone, but Truffaut’s weakness in comic timing may be what saves the material from looking crude and familiar. For example, Antoine’s ineptness at disposing of a bouquet of flowers his mistress has given him is inseparable from Truffaut’s ineptness — he doesn’t make it seem comically inevitable that Antoine can’t get rid of the telltale flowers — and the relaxation of the sequence may prevent the audience from recognizing it as an old routine. Truffaut’s gentleness turns his attempted thrillers into something else, and his gentleness here makes old jokes seem like casual, nice, unforced sophisticated humor. Stolen Kisses had incidental amusements — throwaway bits like the sequence of the pneumatique — and some wry characters. This time, the incidents are uninspired and the characters are imitation René Clair. The casting is dull, except for Claude Jade, as Antoine’s bride. Now blond and thus looking even more like a younger sister of Catherine Deneuve, she has a less ethereal, more practical, but lovely quality. She suggests the solid middle-class feeling that would be attractive to an impractical young man. But you wonder what she sees in Antoine — perhaps some trace of the boy he used to be?
The problem in the Doinel series started, I think, when Truffaut stopped seeing Antoine as a surrogate. What had begun in The 400 Blows as a portrait of the artist as an impetuous, driven young boy turned into wayward vignettes of a tame, odd, somewhat withdrawn young man seeking conventional happiness — Antoine getting comic jobs and losing them in fluky ways, Antoine’s marriage and baby, Antoine’s infidelity, and so on. When Antoine arrives at the limited view of life and the gag humor of Bed and Board, the viewer may ask, “But is this where that marvellous child was heading? Is this dry insularity all that’s left of his strength? Why isn’t he outgoing anymore?’’ Despite the comic surface, it’s a sad progression — a contraction of Antoine’s possibilities.
When, in this film, Truffaut introduces the idea that Antoine wants to be a writer, it doesn’t ring true. Antoine no longer has that kind of consciousness. We can’t believe he’s capable of sustained feeling, because he has become dispassionate and inexpressive. Antoine is out of it; he’s a marginal, fringe character, like Hulot in Mon Oncle. It isn’t just that Truffaut doesn’t have much to say about Antoine anymore but that one doesn’t believe what he says. Léaud is not convincing as an aspiring bourgeois, but Antoine is no longer convincing as a potential artist, either. I wish Truffaut hadn’t shown Antoine writing a novel with loose sheets scattered all over the room; treating him as a foolish, fumbling budding writer seems like having it both ways. The texture of the movie is false. I never for a minute believed in Antoine’s jobs; I didn’t believe in the bluff, loud American construction executive who hired him or in the Japanese mistress who bored him. And, what’s worse, I didn’t respect Truffaut’s reasons for setting up these flabby situations. The sureness of the director’s style in The Wild Child is in such contrast to the infelicities of Bed and Board that the contrast suggests that Truffaut may be a greater artist than he wants to allow himself to be — that he values conventional success (on past models) so inordinately that instead of making his own distinctive works he tries to master the popular thriller and comedy genres of the past.
The New Yorker, February 6, 1971