Returning to The Adventures of Antoine Doinel

Before Richard Linklater endeavored to capture eleven years in the life of a character — and actor — with Boyhood (2014), there was Antoine Doinel. In 1959, François Truffaut shook the world of cinema with a film that put the French New Wave on the map. The 400 Blows and the additional films released over a twelve-year period thereafter follow the same mischievous character, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), as he maneuvers down the winding path of his life. As Antoine grew up, so did Léaud, blurring the lines between his own coming of age and the character’s.

The 400 Blows set the tone for a movement concerned with new ways of filmmaking and storytelling. Antoine is a prime example of the shift in generational attitudes and beliefs taking place in France during the 1960s. Inspired by Truffaut’s own itinerant upbringing, Antoine, barely an adolescent, is victim to the staunch, regimented old wave of state and social institutions that eventually spits him out — an unassimilable rebel. He proceeds to march to his own drum, taking each beat with the utmost sincerity and making many mistakes along the way.

Shortly after the release of The 400 Blows, film writer for The New Yorker, Lillian Ross began a series of interviews with Truffaut. Every five years or so, she would catch him on his press tours in New York. Each time noting his rapidly rising number of films consumed since age 11. 3,000 films in 1960 jumped to 4,950 by 1976. What is special about these interviews is how much of Antoine Doinel is present in Truffaut’s mannerisms. “Earnest, good humored, slightly built and boyish-looking…we found him ready to talk eagerly, in French, about films, films, films.” Whether it was rewatching Vertigo every two months or spending hours discussing craft with Jean Renoir in his Benedict Canyon home, Truffaut instilled his “monk-like” intensity into Antoine’s interests in— classical music, Balzac, writing his own memoir.

Truffaut gives us the rare opportunity of sustained intimacy with a flawed but endearing character. Always on the run — from his absent parents, overbearing teachers, demanding employers, or fair-weather lovers — Antoine’s raison d’être is his perpetual quest for love. Which he often mistakes for self-realization.

When Antoine experiences heartbreak for the first time (Antoine and Colette, 1962) we are reminded of our own unrequited loves. His series of odd jobs ranging from private eye and hotel watchman (Stolen Kisses, 1968) to florist (Bed & Board, 1970) recall to us our own years of searching. As Antoine unpacks who his mother really was, we wonder if our own parents were ever anarchists (Love on the Run, 1979). We continue to root for him because there is a little bit of Antoine in us all.

“The Adventures of Antoine Doinel” screens through October 6 at Film Forum, each film in a new digital restoration.

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