Antoine the Auteur: Francois Truffaut’s Bed And Board (1970) – Blu-ray review
Aka Antoine Doinel’s 3½, as Truffaut realises he’d better make a quick return to his alter-ego’s life before the lad mucks things up.
Bed And Board (Domicile Conjugal)
(Francois Truffaut, 1970)
When does a filmmaker decide to make a sequel? In Hollywood, it’s usually a matter of logistics, whether that means gathering the cast back together, or hitting a target date determined by the optimum economic potential once the last film has been milked dry. Yet Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle operates on its own rhythm.
It took three years after The 400 Blows for Truffaut to decide to reunite with Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character, and then only in the form of half-hour short Antoine Et Colette: the definition of a whim, “let’s see what’s happened to Doinel.” Only after another five years did the director decide to see how his alter-ego had grown in Stolen Kisses, as if to chart how far the French New Wave had grown up in the period between its birth in 1959 and the epoch-shaking events of 1968. But then, a mere two years later, Truffaut was back to catch up with Doinel and his new wife, Christine (nee Darbon). Why so soon?
Bed And Board is the film that makes the random pattern clearer: Truffaut is being driven by his character, not the other way around. There was little need for a full-scale Doinel film until he found love… yet this most flawed of heroes was never going to allow things to run smoothly. So it is that fictional life overrules artistic desire, and demands a swift return to the screen.
On one level, this is business as usual. Truffaut continues the running gag of Stolen Kisses of having Antoine participate in some of the silliest jobs ever committed to cellluloid (in this case, dyeing flowers and controlling model boats by remote control). Similarly, a series of deft visual and aural gags involving the afore-mentioned flowers and a LP recording of childbirth gives free rein to Truffaut’s playfulness when it comes to form.
Yet, Truffaut, like Antoine, is growing up. When we first catch up with the character and his new wife in Bed And Board, all is bliss, with the couple living in an idyllic courtyard populated by gregarious, larger-than-life neighbours and business owners. It’s not quite realism: as shot by Nestor Almendros with rich fluidity, it could almost be a sound-stage from an old Rene Clair movie. Yet nor it is emblematic of the cutting edge of Paris 1970. Most likely, Leaud would have hung around with artists and agitators… yet not Doinel; grounded by Christine, his life here is almost banal in its simplicity.
Christine is vital; the other reason for such a swift sequel. Claude Jade is loveliness personified, and Truffaut was right to seize the opportunity to reunite her with Léaud. Their chemistry is sublime, chiefly because they fit together more as siblings (as the script recognises) than husband and wife. There is a real difference in temperament between her demure politeness and his demanding waywardness, which allows her to be an unusually three-dimensional foil to, and critique of, his character.
They’re almost too different, in effect, and the film’s emotional truth comes from Antoine fucking things up by having an affair. It’s not even that he’s particularly turned on by Kyoko, but Antoine is still a runner, unable to sit still long enough to settle. Disparate feelings – her attention, his idle curiosity and that roving spirit familiar from The 400 Blows – conspire to ruin his idyll.
These days, there is a latent if benign racism to the presentation of Kyoko, especially when Truffaut charts the break-up of their relationship via Doinel’s increasing discomfort with Japanese seating arrangements. But you can see the logic; no other Frenchwoman would have enticed Antoine away from Christine. It had to be somebody more ‘exotic.’ Always with this boy the lure of the sea.
He’s a charlatan and a fool and Truffaut doesn’t let him off the hook – but there’s no judgement. After three-and-a-half films, we know Antoine as well as any character in cinema, and it is the inevitability of his failures that makes them heartbreaking. Meanwhile, Christine’s shifting reactions might not be an advert for feminism but they are appropriate in context. The ending of the film is emotionally true, as a bittersweet happy ending – but can it last? The trouble with franchises is there is always the prospect of another film down the line, should Antoine decide it.