Starting this week, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosts a retrospective of the 57-year career of one of the most iconic figures of modern cinema: Jean-Pierre Léaud. The child who grew up and grew old before our eyes, Léaud will forever be associated with one film above all, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, made when he was only 14, and its character, Antoine Doinel, who he, in many ways, created. In a letter to his friend Helen Scott in 1962 Truffaut wrote, “I would prefer a film to change its meaning along the way rather than have an actor ill at ease. Jean-Pierre wasn’t the character I had intended for The 400 Blows.”
When the Film Society first fêted Léaud, in 1994, in the series “Growing Up with Jean-Pierre Léaud: Nouvelle Vague’s Wild Child” (programmed by my future wife no less), the actor had only just turned 50. Léaud is now 72 years old and playing a dying monarch in his latest film, The Death of Louis XIV.
But to go back to the beginning, Léaud was, in 1959, literally the poster boy for the French New Wave. There are a number of wonderful photographs of him posing with his own printed image in Cannes of that year. A few years ago I wrote about the international posters for The 400 Blows, the sheer variety of which is a testament to that film’s reach and lasting appeal, although only a handful of them captured what was most remarkable about the film—Léaud himself. I know nothing about the film he made next, Boulevard, for old guard director Julien Duvivier (it’s not in the series), but its poster, above, captures Léaud’s rapscallion charm.
Over the next half century Léaud worked for all the great renegades of French Cinema: Truffaut, repeatedly, Godard, often, Rivette, Eustache, Garrel, Assayas, Bonello, as well as the occasional international star auteur like Pasolini, Skolimowksi or Kaurismaki. I’ve collected the best—and most Léaud-centric—posters I could find for these films. Making his debut at the tail end of the golden age of French poster illustration—he was painted by the great Boris Grinsson for 400 Blows—Léaud more often appeared photographed than illustrated in his posters, though there are a few notable exceptions here. What these posters capture above all, what makes them all so different from the poster for Boulevard, is Léaud’s marvelous deadpan: a dispassionate, occasionally puzzled, stone face that would erupt into a manic grin or a voluble tirade on screen. After the last Doinel film in 1979, Léaud was less frequently the star of his films or his posters, often reduced to cameo roles—in which he was wonderful—that played on his iconic presence. Which makes his starring role in The Death of Louis XIV, and in its magnificent poster, all the more satisfying.
See Jean-Pierre Léaud: from Antoine Doinel to Louis XIV at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through April 6. Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions and Posteritati.