Jean-Pierre Léaud is far from the greatest actor of his generation, but nobody better embodied the frustrated yearnings and underlying alienation of postmodern life. Even when he was playing an ostensibly romantic lead, earnestly bumbling his way through life, Leaud conveyed the fundamental aloneness of the journey. Over the long course of his career, Leaud’s characters reflected and represented the idealism of youth—the hopes of the ’60s, specifically—bent and bruised by bourgeois pressures and compromises.
The BAMPFA retrospective, Jean-Pierre Léaud at 75, begins Thursday, July 4 with (of course) the French actor’s breakout performance as the miserable, film-struck adolescent at the center of François Truffaut’s autobiographical feature debut, The 400 Blows (1959). A raw 15-year-old at the time, Léaud succinctly conveyed Antoine Doinel’s anger-fueled rebelliousness but also his hunger for cultural escape.
The 400 Blows was a thunderclap heralding the artistic and commercial promise of the French New Wave (it hit ten months before Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless). Miraculously, its location shots and naturalistic acting remain as fresh and affecting as ever. One of the film’s unacknowledged legacies, however, is the subgenre of coming-of-age films in which the protagonist grows up to be an artist. (Alfonso Cuarón wisely resisted the urge to make the implicit explicit in Roma, so his autobiographical saga doesn’t make the list.)
Léaud will forever be associated with Truffaut, thanks to the touching Antoine Doinel films they made between 1968 and 1979. But Leaud made great movies with other directors, including Godard (Lennon to Truffaut’s McCartney). Masculine Feminine (1966), screening Saturday, July 6, is a wedge of highbrow/lowbrow fun in which Godard orchestrates collisions between drama and melodrama, banality and profundity.
Jean-Pierre Léaud is game for all of it, showing off his ability to ride the waves of any auteur’s vision while maintaining his peculiar persona. In Masculine Feminine, and throughout his unexpected career, Léaud is both mannered and spontaneous, sincere and self-obsessed, puppy-dog vulnerable and Rottweiler-cruel. Finally, at 75, he’s all grown up.