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Jean-Pierre Léaud Speaks: How a Cinematic Icon Nearly Killed Himself for His Best Role Since ‘The 400 Blows’

The reclusive actor put himself through hell to play a dying man, but how much of what we see onscreen is truly a performance? IndieWire spent months tracking him down to talk about it.

Jean-Pierre Léaud in “The 400 Blows” and “The Death of Louis XIV”

I was standing outside the hotel room of a movie icon, unsure quite what I would find on the find on the other side of the door. It was the final day of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and after a week of frantic coordinating with various schedulers, I’d finally managed to land an interview with Jean-Pierre Léaud. He had just played the lead role in “The Death of Louis XIV,” and still endured the impact of enacting his death for the cameras. 

Léaud became one of international cinema’s most famous faces at 14, when he starred in Francois Truffaut’s seminal French New Wave debut “The 400 Blows.” As the adolescent Antoine Doinel, who spends much of the movie acting out at school and at home while witnessing the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, Léaud quickly became the defining face of angst-riddled youth. The movie’s memorable closing freeze-frame solidified its status as a timeless classic. (Doinel grew up in five subsequent films, all directed by Truffaut.)

The actor himself endured a troubled adolescence, getting kicked out of his foster home and expelled from school before Truffaut took him under his wing. No matter which performances he tackled in subsequent years, Léaud remained forever intertwined with the travails of young Antoine, his long features and sad eyes always speaking to deeper truths. 

Léaud has maintained an illustrious career filled with other memorable collaborations — Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci among them — though he never tackled a broad commercial project, and he has remained something of an enigma, avoiding interviews over the years and keeping much of his creative journey a secret.

Strange Encounters

The actor, now 72, was invited to town to receive a special award from the festival, which also programmed “The Death of Louis XIV.” Directed by experimental Catalan director Albert Serra, the movie is a mesmerizing showcase for Léaud, who looks world-weary and uncomfortable, wise and lonely. In one powerful moment, he looks directly into the camera for minutes on end, and it’s as if Antoine Doinel is reaching out to viewers, still lost after all these years.

READ MORE: What Does French Cinema Mean Today? COLCOA Has the Answer

Needless to say, it’s a fascinating and intimate turn for the actor, and I was eager to talk to him about it. My first scheduled interview with Léaud at the festival was slated after I was told he felt too tired for conversation. That happened again a few days later. Finally, I was told to come to Léaud’s hotel just off the Croisette on the waning days of the festival. No promises, his reps said, but he might be willing to talk.

At the door to his room, I was introduced to an American translator and told to speak softly. “Léaud is not feeling well,” the film’s publicist said. “You must sit closely to him on his bed, and not raise your voice.” Then the door opened and we took a few hesitant steps inside.

It was like we had entered the movie set. There was Léaud — a large, shriveled man taking heavy breaths beneath a mountain of crumpled sheets, gazing at the ceiling with a distant glare. His skin was dry and unseemly; it looked like he hadn’t moved in centuries. Standing a few feet away, his wife, the actress Brigitte Duvivier, whispered. “Please,” she said, gesturing toward the side of the bed where Léaud lay. “Sit.”

We slid in. Léaud’s eyes quickly darted towards us and back toward the ceiling as my translator began to make a rushed introduction. Then he started to talk, slowly, in a ghostly, high-pitched wail. “I can only speak for a minute,” he said, in French. “Just for a minute.”

Silence. I started to ask a question, but Léaud paid no heed.

jean pierre leaud

Jean-Pierre Leaud at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

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“I’m very happy to be here at the Cannes Film Festival to represent Albert Serra’s film,” he said, “which has been hailed by the entire press as a masterpiece. And to deal with old age to represent the agony of Louis XIV.” He trailed off. More silence. Then he jabbed his left index finger and thumb in the air and twirled them in a half-circle. “Voila!” he added. “That’s all I have to say. Thank you, sir.”

I pushed back. “May I ask one question?” I said, as the translator speedily converted my words next to me. “No!” Léaud shot back. “Thank you.” His eyes returned to the ceiling.

Slowly, we drifted away from the bed and turned to his wife. She wore a gentle smile. “May I ask you some questions?” I whispered. “What do you want to know?” she asked, also in French. I wanted to know so much: How had Léaud endured the challenge of dying onscreen? What relationship did he see between this performance of old age and his career-long association with youth? How does he relate his “400 Blows” performance today? What could he possibly do after this career-capper of a role? I got as far as the first question.

“He can totally relate to this,” Duvivier said, as Léaud’s noisy breathing continued nearby. “He identifies completely with the character. He was actually sort of astonished to find himself in the skin of an aristocrat. He experienced this very conscious embrace of death in a personal manner.”

She looked like she was ready to go on, but suddenly Léaud noticed us chatting in the corner, and his voice permeated the quiet room. “FINI!” he shouted. (“Finished!”) He roared again. “FINI!” Duvivier shrugged and we headed out the door, down to the lobby, into the afternoon sun. I squinted. Did that just happen? Was Léaud putting me on? Was this bedside routine some kind of extended performance art stunt, an attempt to bring Louis XIV’s dying agony into the modern world? I would get one more chance to ask Léaud about it.

An Unorthodox Project

Albert Serra

Albert Serra

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Appropriately, “The Death of Louis XIV” was conceived as more than a movie. Serra had previously deconstructed a historical figure with “The Story of My Death,” a Casanova-meets-Dracula story that presented the exuberant 18th century figure as a maniacal philanderer and materialist who faces a comeuppance for his deviant ways.

In the wake of that project, Serra received an invitation from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to come up with an idea for an installation. He had recently completed an experimental project on the life and work of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, shooting over 100 hours, and the Pompidou’s curators suggested he try something similar with French culture. Serra turned to Louis XIV, as a means of exploring the physical experiences often lost in historical lore. He envisioned an installation piece with an actor lying in a crystal box for 15 days, reenacting the dying process, as museum-goers milled about. Cameras would capture every moment.

“I started with the simple idea of agony,” Serra told me. “My previous films were a little crazy, with ideas going out in different directions, but this was a single idea — one space, one subject.”

But the cost of the installation kept rising, and eventually the Pompidou canceled the project. “I said, ‘Why don’t we do it anyway?'” Serra recalled. “‘We’ll do it as a feature film instead.'” (Serra did eventually create an installation piece to accompany the feature, a 13-hour, five-screen work that has accompanied the film on the festival circuit.)

Serra was introduced to the actor over lunch through two mutual friends, producer Thierry Lounas and the French scholar and critic Jean Douchet, who began his own career as a part of the French New Wave and had a bit part in “The 400 Blows,” playing the clandestine lover to Doinel’s mother in a pivotal scene when the child captures the two of them in the act. “The originality of Léaud belongs to a rare category of actors,” the 88-year-old Douchet wrote me by email, “those who do not enter into their characters but require that each character come into them, become them.”

In 2012, Lounas interviewed Léaud for Sofilm, the French film journal he runs on the side, which some credit as a motivating factor in Léaud’s decision to go back to work after several years out of the game. “He told me that he really wanted to work with international, young and talented directors,” Robion said. “As a producer, I wanted to see him back in a leading role. I told him about Albert Serra and scheduled a time for them to meet.”

Serra said the pair immediately hit it off. “I really loved him as a person,” Serra said. “Despite his past artistic work, I loved his integrity. He’s never made a commercial film. Not one! This was very important. In our first meeting, he said, ‘I never do that. I like to work with intellectuals.’ It felt that I was with somebody very special.”

The movie was shot on a tight 15-day schedule with no rehearsals. Léaud arrived on the first day of production dressed as the king and stayed that way for the duration of production. “The idea was to create something that felt like being there,” Serra said, “without being too passive about it.” Indeed, “The Death of Louis XIV” may be one of the most unnerving portraits of death ever captured onscreen, at once gorgeously atmospheric and thick with morbidity. It seemed as though Léaud had nearly killed himself in the process of getting inside the role. “The first day he arrived on set, we didn’t feel like we were were seeing an actor,” said cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg. “It was a kind of reincarnation. It was really amazing.”

The delicate lighting schemes enrich each moment with a painterly eloquence, as if the combination of Serra’s patient camera and Léaud’s deathly palor have created a time machine to a distant era in alarming closeups. Serra was especially proud of that disorienting moment when Léaud looks directly into the camera. “You don’t know if it’s him, if it’s Louis XIV struggling with death. It’s both,” he said. “Sometimes it’s abstract, sometimes it’s not. You never know where you are.”

“The Death of Louis XIV”

Serra kept the setups simple to accommodate his approach — three cameras, combining wide, medium and closeup shots — and shot on a Panasonic 3600, an older digital camera that helped avoid too much of the polished, hyperreal look associated with more recent technologies. The images were deliberately underexposed to give the images a softer, more elegant quality. That was especially crucial for the closeups. “For me, it was a bit like a Rembrant self-portrait,” Ricquebourg said. “Time has passed on his face, and you see, through this, what’s remaining in the face of a man — a lifetime. What Jean-Pierre did at this moment was really strong, because he looked at his own death. It’s impossible not to think of the boy that was many years ago in ‘The 400 Blows.’ The ambiguity of the gaze he gave us was very deep.”

Léaud’s peers see the performance as the ideal climax to his career after struggling to find projects on his wavelength. “As with every star, he was called on to play himself in movies as cameos,” Robion said. “Léaud always needed not to be his own myth, but roles where he could reinvent himself and reinvent his characters. Ending his career in a royal role seemed to be a great idea for King Léaud.”

A Second Chance

French Actor Jean-pierre Leaud Speaks at the Piazza Grande Square During the Prefestival Night of the 67th Locarno International Film Festival 05 August 2014 in Locarno Switzerland the Festival Runs From 06 to 16 August Switzerland Schweiz Suisse LocarnoSwitzerland Locarno Film Festival 2014 - Aug 2014

Jean-Pierre Leaud

Flueeler/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

Four months after Cannes, I was at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for the New York Film Festival, where “The Death of Louis XIV” had just screened for local press. Léaud was expected to attend the press conference. I entered the foyer and found NYFF director Kent Jones on the couch. Léaud and Serra were both scheduled to be there. “Think he’ll show?” I asked Jones. He shrugged. “That’s what they tell me.”

Then it happened at all once: Léaud, looking remarkably chipper, sauntered into the room wearing a suit and tie with Serra by his side. They walked right up to the stage of the Walter Reade theater and juggled a half hour of questions from the audience with ease. Serra handled most of the broader thematic questions about the project, but Léaud would occasionally interject with lengthy, profound observations. “There’s no line of separation in this film,” he said at one point. “I became trapped within an experience that almost simultaneously was the experience of my own death. It illustrates this quote by Jean Cocteau: ‘Cinema is the only art that can capture death at work.’ I believe that’s what you see here.”

Serra chimed in: “He did it totally naturally, which was surprising to me.”

This is a key reason why “The Death of Louis XIV,” which opens this week in New York, stands in such stark contrast to much of contemporary cinema. Movie stars tend to shy away from their own mortality, relying on makeup and other wizardry to hide the onslaught of time. Now Léaud, who has been associated with youth for more than half a century, has confronted his older status — and it’s unquestionably his best performance since the one that put him on the map. I couldn’t wait to ask him about it.

The next morning, I was at another hotel, this one on the Upper East Side, waiting to speak with Léaud. This time, the prospects looked much stronger. He was in good spirits, I was told, well-rested and not overburdened with work. I went up to his room, a new translator by my side, and knocked on the door. Léaud opened it. His shoulder-length hair hovered in the breeze of an air conditioner and he was clean-shaven. He smiled gently and shook my hand with a tight grip. I made some mention that we had met briefly before and couldn’t tell if he remember the moment, but nodded slightly as we sat down next to the window.

French Actor Jean-pierre Leaud Poses During the Photocall For 'La Mort De Louis Xiv' (last Days of Louis Xiv) at the 69th Annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes France 19 May 2016 the Movie is Presented in the Section Special Screenings of the Festival Which Runs From 11 to 22 May France CannesFrance Cannes Film Festival 2016 - May 2016

Jean-Pierre Leaud in Cannes

Nogier/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

“I’m happy to see you,” he said. He asked me about my outlet and as I explained our focus — independent films — his smile broadened. “Not Hollywood films?” he asked. “I would’ve preferred Hollywood.” We laughed, and I launched into a question about his interest in this role, but he put up a hand to stop me. “I would rather you take notes than record me,” he said, and his smile started to fade. “OK, no problem,” I replied, then slipped my recording device into my pocket without stopping it. This one needed to go on the record. Some part of Léaud had to understand that.

Content, the actor began to speak. “I am happy to enter my old age by embodying as pregious a character as Louis XIV,” he said. “At 72 years old, it allows me to finally be good at performing roles of my own age.” After his first meeting with Serra, he added, “I immediately understood that this would be an important character in my career, but I don’t like the word ‘career.’ This was an important character in my life, in my filmography. I fought with all the intensity required to enter into this character from his death bed.” Léaud said he prepared for the part by reading Louis XIV’s biography and exploring his own relationship to the dying process.

“No other actor could’ve entered into my own moment of death — no one, except me,” he said. “Any other actor, after one week, would’ve said, ‘Forget it.'”

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t emerge from the experience unscathed. “I felt an amazing intensity of emotion,” he said. “I didn’t come of it intact. I was so determined to find all these feelings about death that were working on me. It was so mentally exhausting.” After the production wrapped, he said, he spent three weeks in bed — although my own encounter with him at Cannes suggests the recovery process lasted much longer. Now, however, Léaud had reached a point of contemplation unavailable to him at an earlier stage. “This is something people don’t love to discuss — old age and death,” he said, “but thanks to this film, I was able to accept both.”

He has started to accept roles for other characters his age, including an upcoming project with Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa. “I’m really happy about this transition,” Serra said. “It’s incredible for me to overlay the little boy from ‘The 400 Blows’ with this old man agonizing over death. I’ve always enjoyed an immense pleasure from performing. I went through all these ages. I don’t deny or reject any of it.”

I asked him why he never tried his hands at a Hollywood role. Surely a few American directors have approached him? “Here, you’re treading into sensitive territory,” he said, paused, then flashed me a broad smile. “It’s sensitive but very dear to me.” He launched into an anecdote I had heard before, though it had not been widely documented: Decades ago, Martin Scorsese wanted to cast Léaud opposite Paul Newman in “The Color of Money,” in a role that ultimately went to Tom Cruise.

400 blows

Jean-Pierre Leaud in “The 400 Blows”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

“I was in the countryside, resting with a young woman by my side, and the phone rings,” Léaud said. “I hear this voice in English. I don’t speak a word of English. I ask the young woman to translate for me. And it was Martin Scorsese. He wanted me to do this movie with Paul Newman in Paris.” Léaud chuckled. “I wasn’t honest enough to say that I’m not really bilingual,” he continued. “I said, if you give me a week to prepare, I can do it.” A few days later, he backed off.

“That’s my great regret,” Léaud said. “I do thank Scorsese for thinking of me. He’s a great film director and film buff. We owe everything to American cinema.”

READ MORE: Why French Cinema Faces an Uncertain Future in America

I asked Léaud what it was like for him to be a part of such a seminal moment in film history early in his career. “These people transformed world cinema,” he said of the Truffaut, Godard, and the other filmmakers associated with the world stage. “I’m so happy to have entered into it when I was young. It was amazing.” He kept it at that, so I shifted to a question about the notoriously rocky relationship between Godard and Truffaut. He knew both filmmakers well. What did he make of their falling out? “Truffaut is dead and Johnny Godard is in Switzerland, continuing to film,” Léaud said. “What do I think about it? He’s obviously the winner because he’s the one who’s still alive.” He laughed again. “I’m the only one who can say that.”

Our time was running out. I asked Léaud how often he revisits his old performances. “For the really older characters, it’s hard,” he said. “I was too young and handsome. Too smart. The characters I do nowadays, you see an older man. I can’t watch those, either. I work by feeling, by instinct.”

I thanked him for his time. “I’m so happy with this work,” he said, as we walked out. “Good luck,” I replied.

He nodded and closed the door.

“The Death of Louis XIV” opens today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The Film Society is also launching a 20-film retrospective of highlights from Léaud’s career. For more information, go here.

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