A frequently unsung hero of the French New Wave was Henri Langlois, who founded the Cinémathèque Française in 1936. The Cinémathèque was a Paris-based theater and, more importantly, a film museum. Langlois devoted much of life to saving films and even preserving other cinematic items like cameras and costumes. The French New Wavers were all consciously aware of Langlois’ importance, and were frequently found in the front row of packed screenings. In 1968, French culture minister André Malraux attempted to fire Langlois by stopping the funding. In response, an enormous film community rose up in protest (eventually getting the ’68 Cannes Film Festival shut down), but none louder than French New Wavers, and none more so within that group than Truffaut. The experience had a profound effect on Truffaut, and it’s apparent in the film and audio clips available from time just how determined—even militant—Truffaut was in getting Langlois and the Cinémathèque reinstated.
Given this tumultuous history, it’s amazing that in the same year, at the same time, Truffaut was able to make Stolen Kisses, a film so insouciant, charming and breezy that it seems impossible that it could be the product of any period of personal turbulence. The film is the third in Truffaut’s twenty-year, five-film, semi-autobiographical chronicle of the life and misadventures of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Here, Doinel is a young man who has just returned from the army and is in search of employment. Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) is a girlfriend (perhaps ex-girlfriend) whom he left behind in the army. The film can be most accurately described as a series of vignettes that follow Doinel through his short-lived jobs as a hotel clerk, a private detective working for an agency, a shoe store stock boy and a TV repairman.
Truffaut was always known as a rather lyrical, playful, and less intellectually rigorous and radically experimental counterpart to Jean Luc-Godard, but Truffaut’s early films, including his most oft-cited masterpieces, The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim, still had hints of existential and morally ambiguous darkness running through them. By comparison, Stolen Kisses seems almost entirely comical, even occasionally bordering on slapstick (Truffaut was likely aware of this as there’s an allusion to Laurel and Hardy late in the film) throughout its runtime. Truffaut does what he can to subdue the comedy as being obvious or unnatural, but in a film that seems almost free of any kind of dramatic seriousness and cinematic pretensions, the comedy is the one element that sticks out in attempting to define where the film fits.
In a sense, Stolen Kisses is a difficult film to write about because it’s so seemingly scattershot and unfocused. I say seemingly, because it’s likely that the chaotic narrative was entirely intended by Truffaut. Jules and Jim maintained a similar brand of incisive unfocus, but it anchored its inventions to the eternal triangle at the heart of the film. Stolen Kisses only has Doinel at its center, taking us through all of its curious and eccentric moods. It’s only fitting, then, that Doinel is as polarizing in the film as he is. At times he’s spoiled, conceited, brash, fallible and thoroughly unlikable, but through Truffaut’s humanistic gracefulness he can also be thoughtful, confused and pitifully human. Similar to the character of The 400 Blows, Doinel isn’t so much a character that leaps off the screen, as a medium and filter by which we view his (and, by extension, Truffaut’s) world.
Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that the film should feel as aimless as it does, because aimlessness is at the heart of Léaud’s Doinel in this film. He’s a character who is living day-by-day, even minute-by-minute with, apparently, no real goals or concerns. Truffaut highlighted this aspect with the final frozen frame of The 400 Blows in which a pre-adolescent Doinel achieves his freedom, only to realize that such freedom can be terrifying and paralyzing if you don’t know what to do with it. The Doinel of this film is the Doinel of The 400 Blows, attempting to forge a life for himself only by his momentary desires, rather than by any conscious understanding of what he wants, and how he can go about getting it. One can definitely observe this is in Doinel’s rather flippant manner in which he approaches women sexually, not really differentiating between the hookers and Christine, whom he tries to forcefully seduce in her parents’ basement.
Unlike The 400 Blows, Truffaut isn’t as cinematically judgmental or, perhaps we should say, as editorial. Stolen Kisses largely finds Truffaut in a relaxed mood, allowing Doinel’s sense of fun and freedom to wash over the film and the audience. Truffaut has given his cast and crew a tremendous freedom to be creative on the spot, and the penchant for improvisation is apparent in the sparkling spontaneity of the film. But Truffaut certainly has his moments of carefully orchestrated drama and comedy too, most notably the scene in which the shoe store owner’s wife, Fabienne, (Delphine Seyrig) has invited Doinel for a drink because she overheard that Doinel has a crush on her. In asking him if he likes music, Doinel, nervous, accidentally replies “no, SIR”. Quickly realizing what he’s done, he rushes out of the room, as Truffaut compresses the action, heightening the sense of embarrassment, as it stands in stark contrast to the slowly building tension that preceded it.
But this element of sustained tension is an anomaly in a film that’s almost absent of it. Even that moment doesn’t really generate a great deal of drama as it’s defused with a note of comedy, one that’s reinforced when Fabienne sends Doinel a note explaining the difference between politeness—accidentally walking in on a naked woman and saying “excuse me, madam”—and tact—walking in on the same woman and saying “excuse me, sir”. So many of the film’s best moments have a certain sense of randomness about them; one of the oddest has Doinel standing in front of a mirror repeating his name and Fabienne’s name over and over again, modulating speeds and working himself into a frenzy. Truffaut hangs on the shot for well over a minute, and it’s so funny precisely because it’s so divorced from any sense of plot, narrative or character progression.
If Stolen Kisses is lacking it’s primarily in the fact that it simply doesn’t offer any kind of dramatic counterpoint that Truffaut’s previous films offered, nor does it have enough truly funny hooks to make a lasting impact as a comedy. Rather, it is one of those films that lulls you into a kind of seductive, anesthetic sense of comfortable fun. I may have my reservations about wishing that the characters and actors were a bit more dynamic and engaging, or wishing that the film had a bit more coherency, but it’s impossible not to admire the kind of light-heartedness that Truffaut could produce during a period of such hostility.