Love on the Run
François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, beginning with The 400 Blows in 1959, rates high among the monuments of the Nouvelle Vague and its legacy. It is also one of the most “accessible”, enjoyable, and hence popular achievements of that loose “movement” in cinema, as the box-set editions of the series in many countries attest. Unsurprisingly, the ongoing bildungsroman of the ever-boyish Doinel (incarnated, in each instalment, by Jean-Pierre Léaud at his most comical and moving) has inspired many essentially classical filmmakers, from American “indies” Daniel Algrant (Naked in New York, 1993) and Richard Linklater to Australian Bob Ellis (The Nostradamus Kid, 1993). And, as well, at least one very un-classical artist: Tsai Ming-liang in What Time Is It There? (2001) and beyond.
However, Love on the Run, the final, synoptic film in the Doinel series, is, in many respects, an anomaly. It is constructed as a vast montage-collage with material drawn from all previous instalments, interspersed with new scenes – some of which also cloak themselves as “flashbacks”, such as the entire Liliane/Dani story.
It was too easy, at the end of the ‘70s as now, to dismiss or downplay Love on the Run as simply a nostalgic or even opportunistic patch-up job. Truffaut tended to refer to it, oddly as a “commission”, an onerous obligation – even though he had wholly initiated it, which was the case with everything he made. Re-viewings allow one to pay more attention to what Truffaut and his co-writers (Suzanne Schiffman, Jean Aurel & Marie-France Pisier – replacing the male duo of Bernard Revon & Claude de Givray used on the two previous instalments) do with the elaborately constructed present-tense story.
This frame-story offers an elaborate criss-cross pattern in which the collision of two central characters allows each one to unlock the problems they experience elsewhere; it’s almost the anticipation of the favourite narrative dispositif of Abbas Kiarostami in the 1980s and beyond, as critic Alain Bergala has systematised it.
How does this criss-cross work? In a prescient, although not entirely “finished” or resolved way, Truffaut sought to tell the simultaneous “journey” of both a man (Doinel) and a woman (Colette, played as in the short Antoine and Colette  by Pisier). Their destiny is not – despite a long sequence between them on a train, reminiscent of the love-and-suspense hi-jinx of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) – to end up together (thus violating a prime directive of the romantic comedy genre) but, in each case, to wind back to the initial lover they broke with near the start of this mosaic: respectively, Sabine/Dorothée and Xavier/Daniel Mesguich – who turn out to be siblings!
With Doinel, Truffaut faced a narrative and thematic problem of which he was all too aware: could this character ever really “grow up”, evolve, change? Wouldn’t that, in effect, destroy what had made the character so funny and (as we say these days) “relatable”? Jacques Lourcelles has described this archetypal figure in a way that would have no doubt won the director’s approval: paradoxically, Doinel is a misfit who wants to blend into society, but can never manage this successfully, or all the way. Truffaut had already tried to end this story once, in the semi-satirical, “married life’s like that” ending of Bed and Board (1970), where Antoine and Christine (Claude Jade) become just like their older neighbours, bickering for eternity.
But the merry-go-round wheel has to start re-spinning for Love on the Run, and Truffaut literally seized on exactly this central image of motion: Léaud always fleeing, hurrying, jumping over obstacles in his path – and, in the marvellously giddy, final whip-pan images (between two kissing couples in a record shop), a return to the youngest Antoine in The 400 Blows defying gravity inside the rotor (an anthological image Tsai also uses to sublimely nutty effect). In the person of Sabine, Truffaut clearly hoped that Antoine would, in a modern, quasi-feminist way, “meet his match”: she’s smart, direct, desiring – not at all the usual “little bourgeois flower” like Christine to whom (as Antoine’s workmate says) he has always previously gravitated. No doubt, this happy “equalisation” was a better way to polish off the Doinel saga than the somewhat sarcastic comedy-of-manners note that concluded Bed and Board.
Just before this ending, however, Truffaut does dare reach for a moment of unexpected maturity: the very touching sequence in which Julien Bertheau reappears as “Mr Lucien” from the time of The 400 Blows – the former lover of Antoine’s mother, Gilberte (Claire Maurier). The passage ends with a plaintive testament at the mother’s cemetery headstone, anticipating a similarly direct and eloquent crowning moment in Philippe Garrel’s J'entends plus la guitare (1991). But there is, in fact, no such character as Lucien in The 400 Blows, and Bertheau was not in it, either: it’s a “rewriting” of the original footage. Here we touch upon a veritable “secret centre” – or, as Anne Gillain has called it, the “lost secret” – of Truffaut’s deliberately entangled, camouflaged but ultimately very personal cinema.
Gilberte is, above all, the figure of the fully sexual mother whom Doinel/Truffaut has long ago violently rejected (and steadily maintained his rage against), and with whom he most come to terms as an adult (Truffaut recycles Christine’s wise speech to Doinel from Bed and Board about the ills of “settling personal accounts” in art – ten years before Maurice Garrel offers similar advice to his artist-son Philippe in Les Baisers de secours ). This rejection of the mother registers as intense ambivalence, because it is also – in a subterranean but nurturing way, a wellspring of the filmmaker’s creativity and inventiveness, not to mention his erotic complexes – a desire. That much is openly acknowledged in a passing grace note: Sabine gives Antoine the complete set of the diaristic memoirs (comparable to those, revered by Truffaut, of Henri-Pierre Roché) by Paul Léautaud (1872-1956), who actually half-fell in love with his mother when he finally encountered her, after being abandoned by her at birth. Indeed, Truffaut pursued in the early 1980s a project of adapting Léautaud’s 1943 novel Le Petit Ami (translated as The Child of Montmartre). Likewise, the sibling intrigue (left enigmatic for most of the film) is stoked by a functionally misleading but also frankly incestuous line of dialogue: “I bet we’ll end up together”. I urge anyone interested in these connections to consult Gillain’s brilliant analysis, developed over many years and with encouragment from the filmmaker himself.
In the case of Colette, Truffaut faced a more difficult challenge. Originally envisaged as a psychoanalyst (that idea is resuscitated in Blake Edwards’ underrated 1983 remake of The Man Who Loved Women), the character then became a lawyer – ostensibly to provide more visual interest in diverse possible situations, and again literal movement (via the train). Curiously, the sub-plotted “case” to which Colette becomes attached, and which causes her to become conflicted – defending a man who murdered a very young child after discovering it was not, biologically, “his” – arrives at no visualisation whatsoever; it’s one of the few purely “talky” elements in any Truffaut film, and hence bears little weight or reality.
It carries other subterranean resonances, however. As Chris Fujiwara has pointed out, this killer, Charles-Antoine, is only one of many fleeting Doinel doubles (or mirror-reflections or echoes) in Love on the Run. But he is specifically “the character Antoine can’t be without violating the tone established for the Doinel films: a tragic, irredeemable figure who pushes his revolt against society to the extreme” – and thus the dead opposite to Doinel himself, as Lourcelles pegged him. Truffaut’s cinema frequently inscribed such tragic, extreme characters at their very margins (like the recurring, mysterious, obsessive lover in Stolen Kisses [1968 ] who was to begin Bed and Board with the spectacle of his nude suicide, jumping off a building). It is as if Truffaut wanted to reflexively mark – but also interrogate and destabilise, “deconstruct” in this sense – the very limits of his own art. (We are close, here, to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s baroque musings on the strange modernist-classicism of Day for Night .) Clearly, this sub-story could have been its own film – one that, at least in 1979, Truffaut may not have considered himself ready to make. He’s happier when he can deftly chaperone Colette back into the easier (and certainly more spirited) resolution of her romantic story with Xavier (himself another Doinel double – oh mercy!).
“Experience is the stuff that imagination processes to create fictions”, states Gillain in the new preface to her major book on Truffaut. Springing off from the autobiographical novel (rendered in English subtitle as Love and Other Problems!) that Doinel has written and had published (the first of several echoes of The Man Who Loved Women from two years previously), Love on the Run gives itself freely over to all manner of reconstructive and deconstructive experiments, many of which are ingenious; this amounts to a large part of the pleasure the film gives us today. Truffaut himself admitted that the project sprang from a certain “archival” urge, the unprecedented opportunity he realised he had at his fingertips of mixing the footage accumulated, over two decades, of the same actor (Léaud) ageing, “in character” as Doinel, from adolescence to adulthood – the same dream recreated more strenuously by Linklater in the stealthy filming of Boyhood (2014) over a period of years, and achieved more lyrically on the down-low in Marco Bellocchio’s annual film-teaching exercises assembled into Sorelle mai (2010). In fact, the specific spark for Love on the Run was provided by Danish filmmaker Henning Carlsen, who told Truffaut how well the all-day programming of the first four Doinel episodes had played – in the same cinema previously managed by Carl Dreyer!
In Truffaut, this archival dare, unpremeditated at the beginning of the series, became a special game. Moments that are familiar to viewers of the series are given new meanings, new contexts, even new plot functions (as with Mr Lucien). Doinel’s private-detective work in Stolen Kisses (1968) becomes a search for a different woman altogether; that same film’s scene of the hero bumping into Colette on the street is switched into black-and-white, to blend with the samples from Antoine and Colette; establishing shots taken from Bed and Board (1970) no longer accompany his strange mini-boat job. As Carole Le Berre details in her indispensable book François Truffaut at Work, there are even repurposed shots from Day for Night and an obscure non-Truffaut film (Bernard Dubois’ Les lolos de Lola, 1976) in which Léaud starred alongside the child who plays Doinel & Christine’s blonde-haired son Alphonse here: Julien Dubois. As always, Truffaut took the opportunity to publicly formulate from this painstaking montage process what was, for him, an inviolable principle: you can play with the archival images as much as you like, but keep their original sound intact. (Not all filmmakers would agree!)
Truffaut understood his own collage-film as a work centred on storytelling: but a distributed storytelling, in which many characters in turn get to narrate, and get to listen (the emblem of this, as Fujiawara notes, is the torn-up but reassembled photo of Sabine, which is literally the centre-piece of the criss-cross plot). In this way, once again, we move away from Doinel as the sole centre of things. Yet Léaud still gets the greatest storytelling passage, just before the finale, and Truffaut gives his star extremely soulful, almost shockingly intense close-ups for it. The director described the scene in a revealing way:
This last part of the film is not dealt with psychologically, but theatrically. I realised, for example, that when Dorothée listens wide-eyed to Antoine telling his spellbinding story with such vehemence, she instinctively takes on expressions from Sacha Guitry’s heroines. In Guitry’s films, things often get resolved theatrically in the end, and in a rather unpredictable manner. It’s the form that “removes” the theme at that moment. It's the spirit that creates the mood, rather than the words spoken. […] We then conclude with a happily relative or relatively happy ending.
Form removes theme: it’s a fascinating idea; one could build an entire theory of cinema upon it. At the same time, it is no doubt something that many fine filmmakers instinctively know (even if critics don’t) – and also practise. Intriguingly, Truffaut himself tended, in subsequent years (judging by an interview on the 2003 Criterion Doinel set), to dismiss Love on the Run as a failure, precisely on this matter of form. Its formal/experimental aspects remained too evident all throughout for his taste, and the film thus failed to become – this was his stated ideal – a real (suitably involving/illusionist) movie, in which we would ultimately forget the framework and get purely into the characters and their overlapping destinies in the present tense.
Such “transparency” may have been his goal as an artist and craftsman, but today we can reverse the polarities and re-appreciate the intricate, formal side of Truffaut – and rediscover the kinship with one of his stated idols, Ernst Lubitsch (who truly knew the extent to which form could replace theme, and theatricality trump reality).
Last point: it is curious that Truffaut returned to Georges Delerue for the musical score of this ultimate Doinel instalment, after having used Antoine Duhamel and his inspired “short stings” for Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board (the latter incorporating into its weave the evocative first four notes of Charles Trenet’s 1942 “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”). But, musically, the earworm stand-out of Love on the Run is Alain Souchon’s disco-pop theme song (for which the director suggested some lyrics): played at the start over the lap-dissolve, rolling-on-floor credits, and then ceremoniously set going on a turntable as the “latest release” for the rousing finale.
© Adrian Martin October 2008 / March 2020