Attitudes and Postures:
Jean-Pierre Léaud


In his book Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze comments that the French New Wave took a “cinema of attitudes and postures ... a long way”. Within that statement, he adds paranthetically that the “model actor” of such a cinema “would be Jean-Pierre Léaud”.


Léaud is a truly emblematic actor within modern French cinema. While still very young, he appeared in Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus (1960) and, most famously, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). For Truffaut, and a little later for Jean Eustache, Léaud figured as the veritable alter ego of the auteur. This created an unusually intimate rapport between audiences and a film actor – as if he were truly the medium of the director’s voice, style, sensibility.


Léaud quickly came to stand for the Nouvelle Vague itself. He was used by many key directors of the ‘60s in this spirit, in ways that capitalised on such intimacy – in films by Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jacques Rivette, Glauber Rocha and Philippe Garrel. Paradoxically (or perhaps not so paradoxically, after all), the intense privacy that Léaud steadfastly maintains – his refusal to appear in the mass media, based on his conviction that “actors are only interesting when they’re on screen” – has only served to cement this intimacy, this intense affective investment and identification to which many fans have testified.


By the early ‘70s, movies in which Léaud appeared were already playing emphatically on his emblematic status: on his living (and ageing) status as a sign of the once glorious Nouvelle Vague, of ‘60s experimentation and idealism radicalism, of delinquent youth culture. Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973) and, supremely, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973) construct their use of Léaud around this emblematism.


In the ‘80s and ‘90s – after much-publicised incidents of breakdown and violence following the death of Truffaut, which had a traumatic effect on him – Léaud emerged again as an even more powerfully emblematic figure in a series of films including Olivier Assayas’ Paris Awakes (1991), Garrel’s The Birth of Love (1993), Aki Kaurismaki’s I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) and a string of Godard films, especially Grandeur and Decadence (1986).


Now visibly ravaged by the passing of time and the vanishing of ‘his’ era, not to mention his personal ordeals, Léaud’s presence acquired a new pathos, and a heavier materiality. And his roles have become crueler, more perverse than ever – the ultimate expression of the Eustache legacy.


There are many emblematic figures in cinema history, but Léaud is more than that: he is a truly unusual and eccentric actor. Criticised in the early ‘70s for being unable to play classical roles in theatrical tele-drama – and for being supremely anachronistic in period pieces such as Truffaut’s remarkable and greatly misunderstood Two English Girls (1971) – Léaud went even deeper into his own, idiosyncratic style.


What marks the materiality of Léaud’s performing style? A very striking use of the head, its weightiness; and of the eyes, fixed in an almost glazed state upon a certain odd spot until suddenly darting this way or that. A tendency to recite or even gabble his lines, as if he were a medium or vessel for text, almost in a trance-like state. And a very remarkable use of gesture or, to put it even more strongly, gesticulation: strange rituals of pointing, hurling his whole body forward, engaging in near-psychotic gestures of ritual violence (as in the spare tyre scene of Godard’s Weekend, 1967). Jerzy Skolimowski’s sublime Le départ (1967) showcases the actor at his least inhibited and most deliriously manic.


Indeed, it is a remarkable feature of Léaud’s career that he has consistently involved himself in wildly non-naturalistic projects that demanded an extreme excess of cartoonish gesticulation, or Artaud-type ritualism – from Pasolini’s Pigsty (1969) and Luc Moullet’s New Adventure of Billy the Kid (1971) through to the ‘80s silent movie pastiche Rebelote (1983).


Léaud has also often exhibited a pronounced taste for a certain transformation of the melodramatic gestural codes of silent cinema: gasping, putting his hand to his mouth, crying out, and so forth. Léaud – like a number of the contemporaries who appeared with him in Rivette’s epic Out 1 (1971), including Michael Lonsdale, Bulle Ogier and the late Juliet Berto – has an intriguing relation to comic performance.


An analysis of the attitudes and postures of Léaud’s performance style could fruitfully centre on a twenty-minute film he made with Philippe Garrel in 1984, Rue Fontaine (an episode in Paris As Seen By ... Twenty Years Later). A dank, cryptic tale of manic depression, suicide and drug addiction – with clear allusions to Léaud’s own period of personal breakdown, as well as to Garrel’s life story – it also provides, as the director has stated, a “documentary on the actor” and his idiosyncratic methods.


In hypnotic, ragged, semi-improvised long-takes, Léaud in Rue Fontaine provides a virtual inventory of all his eccentric acting mannerisms, tics, strategies and devices.


MORE Léaud: Day for Night, Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinematheque, Irma Vep, Masculin Féminin, What Time Is It There?, The Lion Sleeps Tonight


© Adrian Martin August 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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