by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 20019 Paul Ben-Itzak
Written Monday, February 18. Re-written February 25 and dedicated to Pamela and Sabine in memory des belles moments passé autour de la rue des Martyrs. And to Emmanuelle Pretot, camarade en tout choses Truffaut. Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. If we bring in $120 we can continue to mend our bleeding heart with a boxed set of the complete works of François Truffaut. To read this article entirely in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.
PARIS — So there I was at dusk, heart broken and sentiments seeping out, teeth throbbing and gums bleeding profusely into a bandage I was trying in vain to grit (hard to grit when half your teeth are gone), staggering up the rue des Martyrs towards the Montmartre cemetery and the grave of the man I blamed it all on: François Truffaut.
In the late French director’s five-film, 20-year saga that began with the 1959 “The 400 Blows” and climaxed with “L’amour en fuite” (often mistranslated as “Love on the Run”; “Love Escapes” or “Love is leaking” are more exact) Antoine Doinel, played throughout by Jean-Pierre Leaud, is constantly running away: from school, from the army, from his teachers, from jobs ranging from pushing miniature boats in corporate ponds to spray-painting daisies to night-clerking to agency detective to t.v. repairman, and most often from the women in his life: His mother, his wife (the effervescent Claude Jade, whom Antoine, in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” rightly calls “Peggy Proper” for her prim manner), his girlfriend (the eponymous Dorothée, who made her debut in the 1979 “L’amour en fuite” and would go on to haunt the dreams of generations of French children as the country’s equivalent to Romper Room’s Miss Nancy), his older mistress (the wife of his boss at a shoe-store — Delphine Seyrig at her glamorous apex), and various intermittent mistresses. The only one he chases, apart from Dorothée’s “Sabine,” whom he loves but whose love seems to frighten him (he finds her after patching up and tracing a photo of her an assumed lover tears up in a phone booth during an angry break-up call), is Marie-France Pisier’s “Colette,” whom we first meet in Truffaut’s 30-minute contribution to the 1963 multi-director film “Love at 20.” (They meet at a classical music concert; Antoine is working at the time in a Phillips record factory, the director letting us see the hot wax being spun into vinyl. In “L’amour en fuite,” Antoine finally tracks Dorothée’s Sabine to her work-place: a record shop where couples make out to Gilbert Becaud in the listening rooms, Truffaut’s homage to the listening stations in Jean Vigo’s 1934 “L’Atalante” where the – fleeing – newlywed bride takes refuge.)
In “L’amour en fuite,” after Colette hails him from the window of a Lyon-bound train at the Gare de Lyon where Antoine has just dropped off his son by Jade for camp, Antoine jumps on the moving train without a ticket, surprises Colette in her sleeper car right after a fat middle-aged businessman, assuming she’s a prostitute, rubs up against her in the aisle (a lawyer, she’d spotted Antoine earlier in the day at the court-house, where with Jade he’d just completed France’s first no-fault divorce, echoing my own parents split-up in California a few years earlier). After they catch up, she upbraids him for the revisionist way he recounted their courtship as 20-year-olds in a barely fictionalized memoir he’s recently published: “My family didn’t move in across the street from you, you followed us!” (At the time of “L’amour en fuite,” Antoine is working as a proofreader on a book detailing the 18 minutes that De Gaulle disappeared during the 1968 student-worker uprising. Because the project is top secret, he’s working – literally – underground. The netherworld also figures in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” in pneumatic messages from Seyrig requesting love assignations. It’s as if Antoine can’t get out of the lower depths; in “L’amour en fuite,” his mother’s lover from “The 400 Blows” surfaces to show Antoine, who was in the brig when she died, where she’s buried – which happens to be right next to the tomb of Marie du Plessis, the real-life model for Dumas fils’s “Camille.” It’s one of three of the five Antoine films in which the Montmartre cemetery features, and it’s the last; shortly afterwards he’ll reconcile with Dorothée’s Sabine, returning to the land of the living.) He tries to kiss Colette – we’re back on the train in “L’amour en fuite” — and she light-heartedly repels the attempt, scolding him, “Antoine, you haven’t changed.” The conductor comes around for tickets and Antoine flees again, pulling the emergency chord and jumping off the still-moving train. We see the now 34-year-old Antoine running across a field, an echo of the final, poignant, liberating moment in “The 400 Blows,” when a 14-year-old Antoine, having escaped from a youth home/prison, is frozen on screen in flight and in our memories, a broad smile on his face as he runs along a beach, discovering the ocean for the first time (the emotional antithesis of the destiny of the hero in Chris Marker’s 1962 “La jetée,” forever doomed to helplessly watch a woman being killed over and over again on the edge of a dock).
In my own Bizarro universe re-make of the Antoine-Colette train scene from “L’amour en fuite,” it was Colette who, after having chased me and captured my heart, had jumped off the train and was running out of my life.
So it was that last Monday found me staggering up the rue des Martyrs as the Sun set over the Sacre Coeur church (which the 1871 Communard rebels had been forced to build as penance by the ruling Versailles government) which slowly emerged above Martyrs, gums bleeding from the just-extracted tooth, heart raw and as hyper-exposed to its glare as the hero of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” walking on yet another unshaded beach and with — au contraire to Camus’s hero — no one to take it out on … except Truffaut and the illusions with which his Doinel cycle (all five seen one week-end at New York’s Anthology Film Archives just before moving to Paris) had filled me. Once at the grave, after filling my plastic cup at a nearby fountain and popping a dissolvable 1000 gram Paracetamol into the water, posing it on Truffaut’s tomb (decorated with an unraveling 35 MM film spool and a worn set photo of Truffaut, Leaud, and a woman who might have been Claude Jade) and watching it fizz away like my love affair, I lifted my Green as Gatsby’s Light cup and, echoing the Charles Trenet song which provides the theme for the 1968 “Stolen Kisses” – in which Leaud’s Antoine and Jade’s Christine fall in love – toasted François Truffaut with “A nos amours,” to our loves. Looking over my shoulder at Zola’s first tomb, I realized that I might have added: “Je t’accuse! This is all your fault.”
Post-Script, 2/25: Having – like Antoine at the end of “L’amour en fuite” – just taken back the key from under the pillow, I now see myself less like Marker’s hero, doomed to replay the same fate with the same woman over and over again, and more like Antoine in the final frozen frame of the final film in the Antoine cycle, which resurrects the end of the first, of a 14-year-old Antoine frozen in time joyously jumping into the air on a beach, his virgin visit to la plage. And looking for my own Dorothée to patch me up. Interested? Check me out here.