Stolen Kisses

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 is most oft-cited masterpieces, The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim—still had hints of existential and morally ambiguous darkness running through them. In comparison, Stolen Kisses seems almost entirely comical, even occasionally bordering on the 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, by comparison, 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 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, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute with, apparently, no real foresight or overbearing concerns. Truffaut highlighted this aspect with the final freezed 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 Stolen Kisses 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.

But, unlike The 400 Blows, Truffaut isn’t as cinematically judgmental or, perhaps we should say, as cinematically editorial. Stolen Kisses largely finds Truffaut is a relaxed mood, allowing Doinel’s sense of fun and freedom to wash over the film and the audience. Like with Jules and Jim, 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’s 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 them. 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 counterpunch that Truffaut’s previous films offered, nor does it have enough truly funny hooks to make a lasting impact as a comedy. Rather, Stolen Kisses is one of those films that lulls you into a kind of seductive, aesthetically 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. It’s probably not substantial in the sense that it’s a film that will stay with you long after the experience, but while it’s playing it’s a wonderful way to spend a rainy afternoon, like a cinematic fireplace, warmed with the kind of aromatic wood that Truffaut seemed to produce better than any other director.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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