Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Michael Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig
Director: Francois Truffaut
Some films define their times, others belie them and make a statement that way. Stolen Kisses was shot in February, 1968, a period of great political upheaval in France, and yet it’s Francois Truffaut at his most serene and amiable, displaying a good nature that was in all too short supply on the streets – and you can tell the gods agreed with him, because the film is bathed in unseasonably mild and sunny winter weather that adds the finishing touch to its delightfulness.
Drummed out of the army with a dishonourable discharge, Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s fictional alter ego, played as always by Jean-Pierre Leaud) has to adjust back to civvy street and tries his hand at a variety of jobs, while also attempting to reconnect with the girl of his dreams, Christine (Claude Jade), who remains friendly but unattainable. One thing leads to another, and he winds up working for a seedy detective agency, who place him undercover in a shoe shop whose twitchy, paranoid owner (Michael Lonsdale) wants to know why no one likes him. Here, he falls head over heels for the client’s impossibly glamorous wife, Fabienne (Delphine Seyrig).
It’s a story spun out of the flimsiest of gossamer, and it wouldn’t take much for the whole thing to collapse. Yet Truffaut balances one unlikely event on top of another with such a sublimely delicate touch he makes it look easy. By now, almost all the Nouvelle Vague stylistic tics had worked their way out of his system, and the surface of the film is relaxed, naturalistic, seemingly transparent and without technique. Nothing seems contrived, everything just seems to happen, sometimes only just about caught in the margins of the frame by a camera that hangs back like a shy yet curious bystander.
Occasionally, the film accelerates into farce (as in an early scene where Antoine, working as a hotel night-watchman, unwittingly helps to expose an adulterous affair), but more often the pace and tone are casual. Truffaut and his scriptwriters avoid the expected scenes and the usual clichés; nothing is underlined or over-dramatized. It’s all as light as a feather, but there’s an earthiness too, a sharp whiff of everyday life, like odour of the smelly cheese that Michael Lonsdale’s character greedily devours for lunch. Whimsy and flights of fancy are counterbalanced by the humdrum. Almost everything in the film has a lived-in look. This is a Paris that’s badly in need of a lick of paint, and the tide of humanity that washes through offices of the detective agency where Antoine works has left a thick layer of greenish grime on the outer door.
If the film has one flaw, it’s Leaud himself, who gives very little to the camera and tries to make up for it with occasional mugging. But the other performances more than compensate, especially Michael Lonsdale and Delphine Seyrig – the latter at her iconic best, silky-toned, subsiding into refined postures, almost a walking metaphor for the Truffaut aesthetic. “People are wonderful,” says her character, Fabienne. The film doesn’t quite go that far perhaps, but it’s warm and affectionate, and it shows a graceful acceptance of life’s disappointments and the way that, even when you do end up with the right person, it’s often not at the right time.
The Eastmancolor stock doesn’t hold a great deal of detail on this DVD transfer, but the colours are fresh and breezy. Extras include a 3-minute intro and an audio commentary with Claude Jade (Christine in the film) and scriptwriter Claude de Givray. They talk revealingly about the background to the film and its origins in Truffaut’s biography (like Antoine, the director spent time in a military prison). De Givray is very interesting on Truffaut’s working methods – he explains that the script was “merely a reminder”, and that the director would often write scenes the night before and then work out the rest with the actors on location. We also learn that Seyrig didn’t want to play Fabienne and insisted on a hefty paycheque – just as well they met her demands, because it’s impossible to imagine the film without her.