If the French New Wave had a face, it might be the beaky, piercing-eyed visage of Jean-Pierre Léaud. In 1959, at age fifteen, Léaud appeared as Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows; over the next two decades, he would play alter ego not only to Truffaut, but to a whole generation that grew up (or failed to) in parallel with him. For Jean-Luc Godard, he was one of the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” in films like Masculine Feminine and La Chinoise. Later, Léaud stalked through the wreckage of the late-sixties dream in Jean Eustache’s anti-epic The Mother and the Whore, a film and a performance that obliterate sentimentality. The effect of all these collaborations is cumulative: when Léaud turns up in films by Aki Kaurismäki or Olivier Assayas, and when he embodies an expiring monarch in Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, his history appears with him.
“Léaud is an anti-documentary actor,” Truffaut said. “He has only to say ‘good morning’ and we find ourselves tipping over into fiction.” Or, in Godardian terms, a Léaud film is Léaud, twenty-four frames per second. Not one to disappear into a role, Léaud brings a defining set of gestures to each performance; Manny Farber wrote, “Léaud’s acting trademark is a passionate decision that peaks his frenzied exasperation, physical compulsiveness.” Declaiming his lines with solemn clarity or demented enthusiasm, Léaud can be compelling or brilliantly comic, sometimes strange, always iconic.