Baisers volés

Baisers volés/Stolen Kisses (1968 France 91 mins)

Source: NLA/ACMI Prod Co: Les Films du Carrosse/Artistes Associes Prod: Marcel Berbert Dir: François Truffaut Scr: François Truffaut, Claude de Givray, Bernard Revon Phot: Denys Clerval Ed: Agnès Guillemot Art Dir: Claude Pignot Mus: Antoine Duhamel

Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Delphine Seyrig, Claude Jade, Michel Lonsdale, Harry Max, André Falcon, Daniel Ceccaldi, Claire Duhamel, Paul Pavel, Serge Rousseau, Catherine Lutz

Baisers volés is the third instalment in François Truffaut’s wonderful cycle of films concerning his cinematic alter ego, Antoine Doinel (1). Played memorably by Jean-Pierre Léaud, Antoine remains one of film history’s most enduring characters, a shameless romantic who longs for perfection in his affairs with women and work, while finding it difficult to commit to either. At the same time, he is an anachronism, a young man more interested in Balzac and letter writing than television or current events. “Doinel is not a revolutionary, but a misfit”, explains Serge Toubiana. “He doesn’t reject society as much as he has trouble finding his place in it” (2). Over the course of five films, Antoine’s awkward, yet determined climb uphill represents cinema’s greatest coming of age story.

Baisers volés begins three years after Antoine et Colette (1962) as Antoine receives a dishonourable discharge from the Army for “instability of character”. Back in Paris, he resumes his on-again, off-again relationship with Christine (Claude Jade), a music student, and takes on a series of minor jobs, including hotel clerk and television repairman. The majority of the film, however, details his comic exploits as a private detective and his assignment as a “periscope” within a local shoe store. There, he falls madly in love with Mme. Tabard (Delphine Seyrig), the owner’s wife, who represents Antoine’s version of the ideal woman. Choosing between Mme. Tabard and Christine, Antoine balances precariously at the moment between adolescence and adulthood. His final decision represents the first truly mature choice of his life.

The close parallels between the lives of Truffaut and Antoine are well documented. However, in Baisers volés, Antoine begins to highlight more of the qualities of Léaud as a result of the significant collaboration between actor and director. In fact, Truffaut resumed the Antoine story in order to further this collaboration: “Usually, I have two or three reasons to make a film… Here, I admit, I just wanted to work with Jean-Pierre Léaud again” (3). Having recently completed Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and La Mariée était en noir (The Bride wore Black, 1967), two projects heavily indebted to Hitchcock’s rigid shooting style, Truffaut leveraged his friendship with Léaud to allow greater room for improvisation. As a result, the cast devised much of their own dialogue with guidance from Truffaut, thereby contributing to the film’s warm, naturalistic performances, particularly in the scenes between Antoine and Christine.

The improvisatory approach also allowed Truffaut enough free time to participate in the Langlois Affair, which coincided with the film’s production. In February 1968, delegates of the Ministry of Culture fired Henri Langlois from his post as the director of the Cinémathèque Français and replaced him with Pierre Barbin, an official in the Gaullist government. Langlois founded the Cinémathèque in 1936 with Georges Franju in order to screen a wide variety of films to French audiences. During the 1940s and 1950s, it served as the primary educational venue for the young critics/filmmakers who would later comprise the New Wave (including Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette) and the group recognised Langlois as a father figure. Upon Langlois’ dismissal (for alleged administrative inefficiencies), Truffaut organised a wide-reaching boycott of the Cinémathèque and encouraged filmmakers to refuse permission for the institution to screen their films. Over the next two months, demonstrations continued and support for Langlois arrived from a host of internationally recognised figures such as Jean Renoir, Charles Chaplin and Nicholas Ray. On April 22, a special meeting of the Cinémathèque’s board convened and Langlois was reinstated. Throughout the production of Baisers volés, the crew developed the following slogan; “If Baisers volés is a good film, it’ll be because of Henri Langlois, and if it’s bad, it’ll be because of Barbin” (4).

Perhaps the least political of the New Wave filmmakers, Truffaut became outraged by the incident not only out of loyalty to Langlois, but also because he recognised in it the government’s attempt to suppress the arts. As Truffaut admitted later, “I rather tend to reject life and take refuge in the cinema, so when the cinema is attacked, I must defend it” (5). Similarly, the Antoine of Baisers volés takes refuge in an unattainable, idealised dream world of human relations. For example, while in the army, he writes Christine 19 letters in one week, but becomes upset when she does not reply to each one. Upon meeting Mme. Tabard for the first time, he describes her in an agency report as an “apparition” to which a secretary replies, “We want a report – not a declaration of love!” His longing for perfection necessarily isolates him from other people, ironically leaving him further from his goal. In one of the film’s funniest moments, Antoine goes on a date with a “tall girl” to compensate for an argument with the “normal” Christine. In a long shot worthy of Chaplin, the couple walks away from the camera while Antoine routinely cranes his head up toward his date, who is at least six inches taller than him.

Throughout Baisers volés, Antoine encounters a variety of compromised adult relationships, implying that concession or conciliation, rather than idealisation, defines maturity. Mme. Tabard, for example, considers a relationship with Antoine as a result of her passionless marriage. M. Tabard (Michel Lonsdale) describes his life as perfect and happy, save for the fact that everyone hates him. When Antoine runs into former girlfriend Colette (Marie-France Pisier) on the street, her dour husband (François Adam) and infant child unenthusiastically accompany her. Finally, even prostitutes carry no degree of certainty. When Antoine hires one upon discharge from the army, she refuses to kiss him, mess up her hair or remove her sweater. Don Allen describes Antoine’s travails as “a yearning for truths in a world of compromise” (6).

To preserve the possibility of a perfect world, Antoine deeply mistrusts the spoken word and writes letters or engages in pantomime as alternatives. After all, speaking requires spontaneity and may lead to socially awkward mistakes, as demonstrated when Antoine foolishly answers, “Yes, Sir” to Mme. Tabard and then bolts from the room in embarrassment. As a result, he remains a compulsive writer (he will become a successful novelist in Bed and Board) and declares his love for Mme. Tabard in a feverish, hyperbolic letter delivered via Paris’ pneumatique network. Similarly, rather than conversation, Antoine and Christine often pantomime to each other. For example, at their first meeting following Antoine’s discharge, Christine approaches Antoine at his hotel desk job, stops in the doorway and gestures through a window. Antoine waves, smiles and encourages her to enter with a tilt of his head. Emblematically, the film’s most beautiful scene combines both writing and pantomime. Following their first night together, Antoine and Christine sit at a table and share breakfast. He takes a slip of paper, hurriedly jots down a note and passes it to her. She reads it, jots down a response and slides it back. After a final exchange, Antoine picks up a heart-shaped bottle opener and slips it onto Christine’s finger. In a single contemplative two-shot that lasts several minutes, Truffaut delivers the most romantic marriage proposal ever committed to screen.

Antoine’s path to marriage and maturity might appear overly sentimental were it not for the underlying sadness running throughout the film, particularly its frank discussion of death. On Antoine’s first assignment, a fellow detective tells Antoine of his grandfather’s passing and explains that, “Making love is a way of compensating for death. You need to prove that you still exist”. Antoine apparently agrees for when M. Henri (Harry Max) later dies unexpectedly, he promptly visits a prostitute following the funeral. Truffaut frames the encounter from a bird’s eye view atop a building so that Antoine appears miniscule in his surroundings. By linking love and death in this manner, Truffaut calls attention to the fleeting nature of life itself. In fact, the film’s title, taken from the 1953 Charles Trenet theme song, implies that love is never guaranteed, but rather, must be seized when available. More explicitly, Mme. Tabard recounts the story of her father’s death, when in his final moments, he suddenly declared, “People are wonderful”. The anecdote’s surprising combination of recognition and regret, sadness and satisfaction nicely encapsulates the mood of the entire film offering what Andrew Sarris described as “harsh truths… disguised as light jokes” (7).

As with all of Truffaut’s great films, Baisers volés features an odd collection of minor characters and playful cinematic asides that present a complex view of the world: M. Henri’s comic raid on an adulterous couple in Antoine’s hotel; the detective agency’s gay client who discovers his magician boyfriend has a wife and child; Antoine’s clever method for obtaining someone’s address (he calls them on the telephone and tells them they’ve won a prize); a montage of the pneumatique network underneath the streets of Paris; Christine’s lesson on buttering a biscuit without breaking it; Antoine’s manic repetition of his name in a mirror. While each individual moment feels lightweight as it passes, their cumulative effect creates a truthful portrait of ordinary life.

The film’s final scene outdoes them all as Antoine and Christine, newly engaged, stroll in the park. A strange man who has trailed Christine for days approaches the couple and declares his love for Christine. He describes his love as “definitive” and unlike the “temporary” love of “temporary people”. When he walks away, Christine explains that the man must be mad. Antoine, recognising similarities in much of his own previous behaviour, admits, “He must be”.

Endnotes

  1. The cycle began with Truffaut’s masterpiece Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), continued with the 30-minute Antoine et Colette (an episode in L’Amour à vingt ans, 1962) and concluded with Domicile conjugal (Bed and Board, 1970) and L’Amour en fuite (Love on the Run, 1979).
  2. Serge Toubiana, Baisers volés, DVD commentary (Criterion Collection, 2003).
  3. François Truffaut in Cineaste de Notre Temps: François Truffaut, dix ans, dix films (Jean-Pierre Chartier, 1970).
  4. The film opens with a dedication to Langlois and a shot of the closed Cinémathèque. Within the film, the incident is cleverly alluded to when Christine explains that her fellow students are boycotting classes because the director has been fired. For a detailed account of the Langlois Affair, see Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Truffaut, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999, pp. 235–241.
  5. C. G. Crisp, François Truffaut, Praeger, New York, 1972, p. 108.
  6. Don Allen, Finally Truffaut, Paladin Grafton Books, London, 1985, p. 51.
  7. Andrew Sarris, “Stolen Kisses”, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel (Criterion Collection, 2003) pp. 60–61.

About The Author

Mike Robins is an Arizona-based filmmaker and writer. He is the director of Three Flat (1998) and The Boy in the Baseball Cap (2001) and the author (with Robert N. Gilbert) of Welcome to Our World: Realities of High School Students (Corwin Press, 1998).