Although I first encountered Antoine Doinel (played by the wonderfully effervescent and cheeky Jean-Pierre Léaud) in a second-year film class at university, it wasn’t until a few years later that I truly appreciated the genius of François Truffaut’s series. Thanks to an enthusiastic recommendation from a rather handsome gentleman, whom I fancied at the time, I immersed myself in Doinel’s moving and madcap life. Having only viewed The Four Hundred Blows (1959) – a film that many critics regard as the beginning of the French New Wave – I followed Doinel from his mischievous escapades as a 13-year-old to his romantically melancholic twenties and chaotic thirties.
Where did I find the name Antoine Doinel? For a long time I really did believe that I had invented it until the day someone pointed out to me that I had simply borrowed it from Jean Renoir’s secretary, Ginette Doinel!
– Francois Truffaut
When I contemplated writing on one of the films in Truffaut’s Doinel series, I found it impossible to narrow down the selection to just one film. Although you can watch each story individually, the Doniel films are best watched in sequence and, might I suggest, over a couple of evenings. Although The Four Hundred Blows has reached an iconic status that is separate to that of the other films, a screening of Antoine and Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979) collectively allows the viewer to follow an intimate journey from adolescence to adulthood.
The Doinel films are principally carried by the amazing performance of Léaud, but Truffaut’s love of cinema indelibly marks the films. He commented that making films is a means to “improve life” and approach filmmaking with a distinct lack of pretension: “I firmly believe that we must refuse any hierarchisation of genres and consider that what is ‘cultural’ is simply everything which pleases us, entertains us, interests us, helps us to live. ‘All films are born free and equal,’ as André Bazin once wrote.” However, Truffaut’s commitment to making films that simply entertain belies his talent as a filmmaker who has a knack for capturing life in beautiful detail.
Some critics have disregarded the Doinel films as mere autobiography on Truffaut’s part – a reading that Truffaut has in part dismissed as exaggeration – and levelled criticism at the director for lacking the cinematic bravado of his peers in the New Wave. I find both observations irrelevant, as I believe that the films are concerned with everyday live – the magic of love, male-female relationships, growing up and finding an identity. These themes are brilliantly explored in the Doinel films, as the viewer watches the life of the protagonist unfold before his or her eyes. We are silent witnesses to Antoine’s harsh childhood, the embarrassments of unrequited love, the blossoming of love, sexual awakening, parenthood, and divorce. What is notable is that Truffaut handles this material with both honesty and sensitivity. Even if you’re not a Francophile, I cannot recommend these films enough.
Take it from me (and the handsome gentleman from my past) that they are well worth viewing.