The Lion Sleeps Tonight

(Le lion est mort ce soir, Nobuhiro Suwa, France/Japan, 2017)


Under the Sign of Léaud


It seems that Jean-Pierre Léaud is fated to die for a long time, over and over, on screen. In 1990, aged 46, he just managed to escape the assassination he had arranged for himself in Aki Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer. In 2001, for Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There?, he was already hanging around, age 57, in cemeteries (which he appears to use as pick-up joints). Since then, movie after movie has surrounded him with funereal moods and themes. The apogee of this trend arrived in 2016, courtesy of Albert Serra, in the woeful The Death of Louis XIV.


And now comes Nobuhiro Suwa’s tribute to Léaud which, although it expansively incorporates the song we know in English as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, actually translates, in its French rendition, more like “The Lion Dies Tonight”. The film begins with a frank dramatisation of the matter of mortality: Léaud as the actor Jean must play a death scene in a project directed by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing. This leads him to reflect on that special time, between the ages of 70 and 80 (Léaud is now 74), where one has a chance to reflect upon one’s existence and anticipate death – and thus to experience the end of life as a true “encounter”, not a mere interruption to its flow.


But when this film-within-the-film stalls, Jean wanders off elsewhere, in search of traces of his past. He takes up residence in an abandoned house (Suwa’s fondness for Jacques Rivette, evident in previous films such as 2-Duo [1997], again surfaces). There Jean meets a phantom from his past: Juliette (Pauline Etienne), preserved in her bloom of youth, but who in physical reality committed suicide long ago. This gentle, melancholic psychodrama is, however, itself interrupted by a lively, spontaneous element: a gaggle of local kids who want to make a Ghostbusters-style haunted-house movie, featuring Jean.


With these children, Jean reconnects with both his own childhood, and with a certain sense of freedom and play in filmmaking. (Although his post-facto proclamations concerning this, along the lines of “This is just like the Nouvellle Vague!” and “This is how all filmmaking should be!” are not terribly convincing – and Léaud doesn´t always look at ease interacting in-the-moment with uncontrollable kids.)  After this long and illuminating diversion, this “two weeks in another town”, Jean returns to the set of the initial movie project – finally equipped with the insight and fortitude to play his own death scene, which he does in a surprising way (it is surely the film’s best scene).


The Lion Sleeps Tonight is, in truth, a somewhat loose and even awkward assemblage of elements; Suwa has almost always worked with the juxtaposition of different levels, different source “texts” (such as the gradually dissolving attempt to “remake” Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour [1959] with Béatrice Dalle in H-Story [2001]). Léaud – who grants few interviews, but agreed to answer in writing six questions posed by the editors of Cahiers du cinéma concerning Suwa’s film (no. 740, January 2018) – has explained that it was his own idea to use, as the basis of the dialogues between himself and Juliette, a play written by his father, Pierre Léaud (1909-1996), Fugue en mineur(e). This offered a way, he said, to deliver a post-mortem tribute to the real father who has usually been overshadowed by the actor’s “symbolic father”, François Truffaut. (Indeed, many capsule bios of Léaud neglect to mention his biological parents altogether, and head straight for his seeming “adoption” at the point of adolescence by Truffaut and Jean Cocteau.)


This non-naturalistic level of the text-recitation of Léaud Snr works well enough, in the vein of certain Manoel de Oliveira or Werner Schroeter films. But what of Léaud Jnr’s impromptu performance of Guy Béart’s classic song “Allo … tu m’entends?” (“Hello, can you hear me?”) which he performed (with a rising tone of hysteria) back in 1967 for Godard’s Weekend? The actor considers it a “vibrant homage to Jean-Luc”, but its pertinence here is dubious.


So The Lion Sleeps Tonight is a project that very much builds itself around the person and persona of Jean-Pierre Léaud. His frankly eccentric ways as an actor are legendary: Olivier Assayas has explained that once Léaud (especially since the 1990s) receives a script, he not only memorises the lines in an obsessive fashion, but also “locks in” the gestures and movements he believes best accompany them – irrespective of any mise en scène with the other actors yet to come on set. Directors thus have little choice other than to accept what Léaud gives them, and build everything else around that – which suits some auteurs (like Serra, Kaurismäki or Philippe Garrel) better than others. This also explains why certain of Léaud’s famous gesticulations and bodily postures – the way he pauses and rolls his eyes up to the ceiling or the sky, or his strange, circular movements of the hands and arms – reappear unfailingly from film to film. (The Canadian critic André Habib has written a splendid 2015 book taking off from a reverie on “Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Left Hand”, often errant or aberrant in its trajectory.)


All of this – the way in which Léaud works (or not) with directors, the way he invariably “does his own thing” – forms the basis of some good-natured comedy in The Lion Sleeps Tonight, especially when the kids try to rehearse and guide his performance, or when he querulously bursts (several times) into his own extremely odd rendition of Henri Salvador’s French version of “Le lion est mort ce soir”.


But there are also factors beyond even Léaud’s control. He – like Dennis Hopper or Crispin Glover among male actors, and Ingrid Caven or Anna Karina among female actors – has become a living emblem: of a time in history, of a type of cinema, and of associations with specific films and their directors. The central “sticker” emblazoned on Léaud, whether he wants it or not, is the Nouvelle Vague, particularly under the sign of his twin cinema-fathers, Truffaut and Godard (who, in reality, sometimes fought over him, as a token to be won over to one side and then the other). The Truffaut legacy equals, primarily, Léaud as Antoine Doinel, the director’s alter ego; and the Godard legacy leads to a more diffuse but definitely recognisable path as an actor in all manner of freewheeling and/or politically radical projects, ranging from Glauber Rocha (The Lion Has Seven Heads, 1970), Rivette (Out 1, 1971) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Pigsty, 1969), to Jerzy Skolimowski (Le départ, 1967), Luc Moullet (An Adventure of Billy the Kid, 1971) and the too-little-known Diourka Medveczky (Paul, 1969).


One should probably also admit Jean Eustache into that central, determining circle of Léaud’s career, since the actor was a quite different alter ego or mirror – harder, colder, more emotionally brutal – for him than for Truffaut, beginning with Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes (1966). Yet Léaud’s most famous, demanding and elaborate performance for Eustache, as Alexandre in The Mother and the Whore (1973), already marked one of the first steps in the making-emblematic of this young star: both here and in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Léaud, still in his late 20s and bursting with intensity, was made to stand (in this post 1968 period) for a failure of revolt, a confusion of purpose, a loss of direction, a misplaced and imploding energy. Even Truffaut occasionally helped to develop this latter, sadder turn in the Léaud persona: at the end of Two English Girls and the Continent (1971, restored 1984), the actor contemplates his reflection in a window, suddenly aged; and in the underrated conclusion to the Doinel saga, Love on the Run (1979), flashbacks to younger days underline a pained nostalgia for what is now lost.


Léaud underwent some profound personal crises during the 1980s, some of them well-publicised at the time – particularly the impact on him of Truffaut’s untimely death at age 52. Several of Léaud’s roles from that period – including as “Gaspard Bazin” in Godard´s superb, recently re-released telefilm Grandeur and Decadence (1986), as an investigative cop in the same director’s Détective (1985), and especially as yet another auteur’s alter ego in Garrel’s extraordinary short Rue fontaine (1984) – allusively record some of the vibrations from that time of crisis, registered within the frequently opaque and shattered performance-language of the actor. This period is echoed, in a more comical vein, by Léaud’s role as the ex-Nouvelle Vague director on the skids in Irma Vep (1996); and in a sombre, reflective key, alongside another emblematic actor of the same generation, Lou Castel, in Garrel’s sublime The Birth of Love (1993).


By the 1990s, and with the adoption of Léaud by a newer generation of directors, a different version of the emblem emerges. In Assayas’s Paris Awakes (1991), the actor has recovered a good deal of his vitality and fine, youthful looks; however, he has now firmly become the troubled and sometimes troubling father-figure in an Oedipal scenario, struggling with a young adult son over both a woman, and generational ideals or political values. A decade on, Bertrand Bonello encapsulates this trend by casting Léaud as, once again, a misunderstood film director (this time, of avant-garde porn) aiming for a difficult career renewal, and simultaneously at war with his son (Jérémie Renier), in The Pornographer (2001).


Arriving in the 21st century and slipping into secondary or cameo roles, we see a familiar process of nostalgia at work: Léaud sometimes literally becomes an oracle, a mystical or magical figure dispensing precious gifts or old-age wisdom, at the edges of many films including Noémie Lvovsky’s delightful Camille Rewinds (2012), and Arielle Dombasle’s Alien Crystal Palace (2019).


Let's pause here for a recap. Icon in his 20s, problematic sign in his 30s, a symbol of crisis in his 40s, tortured Dad in his 50s, figure of nostalgia in his 60s, and ready for the grave in his 70s. The general question arises: are emblematic actors forced to age faster and die sooner (on screen, at any rate) than their peers? Léaud himself doesn’t appear to be complaining about it; he’s happy to get whatever screen work he still can and, as far as he’s concerned, he approaches each role with the same inner passion and intensity.


In reference to The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Léaud has praised what he calls Suwa’s gift for cinematic “plasticity” – the on-the-spot ability to shape rhythms, forms and moods from the simplest arrangements and movements (JPL cites the example of he and Etienne dancing and singing together, choreographed by Suwa and DOP Tom Harari with a mobile camera). The best moments are, indeed, when the camera itself takes on the auratic presence of that figure-of-the-beyond whom Jean/Léaud must “encounter” – as when it withdraws, leaving him suddenly alone on a wooded path (an unforced Mizoguchi moment), or when it slowly approaches to frame him in close-up in the film’s two ultimate “takes”.

© Adrian Martin 7 & 8 April 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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