Friday, April 22, 2011

Love On the Run

Love On the Run is the final installment in François Truffaut's series of Antoine Doinel films. For this goodbye to his most famous character, and to the series that he inaugurated with his debut feature, Truffaut offered a recapitulation of everything that had come before, a self-conscious trawl through the highlights of Antoine's onscreen life. The film is littered with snippets of other films, scenes from the previous Doinel adventures that keep bubbling up from the thoughts of various characters. These scenes from other movies are presented as memories, an appropriate metaphor since they are memories, presumably, for the audience as well, memories of other movies seen, memories of this character's previous screen adventures, of what he and the rest of the cast looked like nine years ago, or eleven years, or seventeen, or a full twenty years ago, when the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud and the character he played were both only fourteen, a rebellious kid struggling with quarrelsome, inconsistent parents and the strict discipline of school. These films have always been about constantly building on the foundation of the past, and the previous films in the series already contained echoes of the earlier works, references to Antoine's previous adventures and to the audience's memory of his earlier screen incarnations. Here, the device is taken to its logical conclusion, the subtle echoes and parallels replaced by literal — and liberal — quotation.

When Truffaut last checked in with Antoine, in 1970's Bed & Board, he was married to Christine (Claude Jade), and that film ended, after some marital difficulties and infidelity, with the couple's moving reconciliation. It's thus purposefully jarring that Love On the Run opens with Antoine waking up with another woman, Sabine (Dorothée), who has the same slender, nice girl prettiness as Christine. The opening scene, in which the couple playfully banter and spar, until Sabine finally turns off the light and tackles Antoine, suggests that Antoine still hasn't changed, that he's still unsettled, flighty, always looking for something different and winding up with variations on the familiar. He's never quite grown up, and throughout the film he's being dissected, analyzed, his routines and follies mocked and prodded. Everyone has his number down by now: that he's a hopeless romantic until the moment when he gets what he thinks he wants, that he's still haunted by his past and especially by his unhappy childhood, that he has a rather pessimistic view of love and relationships. When the film opens, he's on the verge of getting divorced from Christine, he's embroiled in his latest in a long line of passionate affairs with Sabine, and he's ripe for a reappraisal of his life so far.

The film thus takes Antoine, and those around him, on a trip back through his life as it has unfolded on screen. Characters from Antoine's past return, revisiting earlier moments in his life. Most notably, Antoine again meets his first love Colette (Marie-France Pisier), the girl from the short Antoine and Colette, in many ways the template for all of Antoine's later romantic adventures even though she always resisted his amorous advances. She's now a lawyer, divorced like Antoine, and also mourning the death of her child. Her reunion with Antoine allows her, through reading his autobiographical novel, to reminisce about their pasts and to think about where their lives are headed now. Colette's story in this film parallels Antoine's, to the extent that she becomes a costar with him, two people with a shared past headed along similar trajectories. Just as Antoine struggles in his relationship with Sabine, unable to convey to the girl just how much he loves her, Colette has an on/off romance with the book store owner Xavier (Daniel Mesquich) who, it turns out, is Sabine's brother. Her story and Antoine's thus come together, as both of them are trying to shrug off their pasts and move forward with a new love. As Antoine tries to come to terms with his immaturity and his hang-ups, Colette is still haunted by the death of her child (a detail that's foreshadowed early on but isn't revealed until late in the film) and her uncertainty about her feelings for her lover. This film, mirroring Truffaut's second Antoine story, is about Antoine and Colette, but this time it's not about their failed romance, but about their parallel romances with other people.

This film is refreshing in that it abandons the cheesy humor of the last two Antoine Doinel installments, Stolen Kisses and Bed & Board, focusing instead on the pathos and emotion of Antoine the perpetual man-child, always just on the cusp of adulthood, always learning lessons that, one suspects, he may forget just as quickly. Love On the Run is moving because it provides a cathartic final look at Antoine's life, his mistakes and mishaps, and because it gives him a chance to correct some of those failings. At one point, Antoine runs into Lucien (Julien Bertheau), the man he saw kissing his mother in The 400 Blows, and apparently the man who went on to become her longtime lover. Lucien provides Antoine with a softer, more sympathetic view of his mother, conveying to the touched young man that even if she was never quite able to show it, she did love Antoine. Lucien takes Antoine to his mother's grave, and her face, preserved as she had looked in The 400 Blows, is briefly superimposed into the film, a ghostly projection from the cinematic past providing some closure to Antoine's unhappy childhood.

And also, of course, to Truffaut's, since Antoine's troubled childhood was so thoroughly autobiographical for the director. This is an especially autobiographical film for Truffaut, as evidenced by the liberal quotations from his own previous work, not just the Doinel films but Day For Night (which is evoked by a flashback of Antoine's affair with a woman played by Dani, with situations and dialogue derived from the earlier movie) and Une belle fille comme moi, which Truffaut lightly mocks by having his characters comment on it. He also nods to his fellow New Wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer by having Christine and Dani's Liliane draw sketches for Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois, thus acknowledging the more adventurous, experimental path traveled by some of Truffaut's New Wave contemporaries while he went on to make mainstream thrillers and comedies and love stories.

Love On the Run, of course, is stuck in the past, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. The film's relentless quotation is often moving, though at times Truffaut goes overboard, especially when he excerpts such long scenes from his previous films that one nearly forgets the surrounding present-day material that prompted these flashbacks. The story of Love On the Run itself is minimal, and the flashbacks often overpower the new material. But Truffaut makes interesting use of his structure, inserting several flashbacks to scenes that didn't exist in the previous films, scenes that might be excerpted from some never-made film that fills in the blanks in between Bed & Board and Love On the Run, like Antoine's affair with Liliane, and the death of Colette's child, and the start of Antoine's romance with Sabine.

The film's final act is especially moving and charming, built on a playful foundation of coincidences and contrivances, like Colette's meeting with Christine, which provides the impetus for one of the film's very best scenes. It's wonderful to see these two women who Antoine loved so intensely converge at the apartment of Antoine's latest love. The two women sit on a bench together and talk, sharing stories of heartache and humor, commiserating about the man they both knew at very different times in his life and in very different ways, laughing about his follies and his idiosyncrasies. It's a delightful and oddly emotional scene, a wry look at Antoine from outside his own self-involved bubble, and the women laugh together, intervene one last time in Antoine's latest romantic folly, and then move on to their own lives without him. This sets up the romantic finale, in which Sabine and Antoine, after reconciling — the way Antoine and Christine had reconciled at the end of Bed & Board — speak into a mirror, delivering lines that might as well be spoken directly to the camera, since they constitute the last word on Antoine and the implicit moral of this final film. It's an acknowledgment that nothing is certain, that life is a constant process of upheavals and changes, and that despite this lack of permanence the best thing to do is to approach each new adventure, each new love, each new career, pretending that it will last forever. What a great way to say goodbye to Antoine.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Ed, I trust you;re familair with Tsai Ming-Liani's What Time is It There? What say you of Tsai's take on Truffaut?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Marie-France Pisier is dead.

Ed Howard said...

David, I haven't seen the Tsai film; I'll have to check it out.

It's really a shame about Marie-France Pisier, she was delightful in these films.