Stolen Kisses May 25, 2021
1 Hr., 34 Mins.
wenty-something-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) enlisted for military service a while back almost on a lark — he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life. At the beginning of Stolen Kisses (1968), he’s discharged with a similar nonchalance. He’s deemed “temperamentally unfit”; this breakup is less akin to a contemptuous split and more a house cleaning. (Antoine is likened to clutter.) Antoine doesn’t
have any ideas about what the next phase of his life will entail, but he doesn’t seem very worried. As personnel explain why he’s being dismissed, he makes funny faces — puffs out his cheeks, bugs out his eyes, barely veils laughter. When he leaves the local military compound, he doesn’t walk but elatedly dart out. At top speed, he braves the chaos of the Arc de Triomphe roundabout on foot, makes a pit stop at a nearby hotel for a dalliance with a sex worker, then waltzes into the home of his maybe-maybe-not girlfriend, Christine (Claude Jade), to tell her the news. She's away on a ski trip right now; fortunately, she has parents with whom Antoine might get along better than Christine herself. (This simpatico relationship is a plus: Christine’s dad, played by Daniel Ceccaldi, manages to hook Antoine up with a job as a hotel clerk.)
Writer-director François Truffaut loved the semi-autobiographical Antoine enough to keep checking in on him. Preceded by a half-hour-long short film released in 1962 (as part of the omnibus movie Love at 20), Stolen Kisses was the second of five feature-length movies to star the character. The first entry, The 400 Blows (1959), is the series’ most famous — a dramatization of Antoine’s life as a restless, rebellious 15-year-old. Stolen Kisses, a likable comedy about quarter-life dawdling, is often remarked upon as a marked tonal change of pace: lighter, sweeter — goofier. Some segments seem to aim for something slapstick adjacent; sometimes the laughs the movie inspires are hearty. One inspired stretch of Stolen Kisses involves Antoine getting improbably seduced by the glamorous blonde wife (a wonderful Delphine Seyrig) of a temporary employer (Michael Lonsdale) who thinks everyone hates him. The nervousness of the comedy rumbles. It reaches an apex when Antoine, rendered almost speechless by his tenseness, accidentally calls the wife “sir” and concludes right then that the only appropriate reaction to the blunder is to bolt out of her apartment. His quickness evokes a cartoon rabbit speeding off a cliff, making it a few feet into the air before realizing what he’s done.
Truffaut doesn’t downplay the recognizable scariness of being young, uncertain, and with no deep-seated flair for anything. Antoine’s continuous evasion of the admirably patient Christine is an exertion of domestic fears (settling down with her seems unavoidable), and the professional ping-ponging in the course of the movie has an undercurrent of anxiety — like there will never arrive a moment where you can feel secure in your living. (The hotel thing doesn’t work out — a snafu arises when Antoine unthinkingly assists a jealous man who storms into a room rented out by his adulterous wife — and so Antoine later tries his luck as a detective, a shoe-stock boy, and a TV repairman.) “Well, that’s life!” Antoine says just after losing the hotel job. He doesn’t seem to expect stability. Greatly assisted by Léaud’s amusing awkwardness, Truffaut consistently locates the humor in the flailing. Léaud is an actor who knows how to play a desire to jump out of your own skin.
Nearing 40 when he made Stolen Kisses, Truffaut employs on Antoine the unmistakable sort of sympathy one might give themselves when reflecting on what they were scared of, what their failings were, when they were younger and searching for a sense of self. Stolen Kisses has such a warmth to it precisely because of Truffaut’s retroactive tenderness. Antoine isn’t the only one receiving it. Truffaut, who wrote the screenplay with Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon, seems to have great feeling for the assortment of characters who pop in and out of Doinel’s life. When a detective mentor who helped Antoine get the job at the agency drops dead at the office, the loss is felt. (Antoine, naturally, isn’t sure how to deal with it, so he heads to a hotel, like when he was discharged from the military, for another quickie.) And Christine’s parents, though going unnamed, are written with clear affection. But they still seem to contain worlds of their own despite not doing much besides help Antoine out in film — they suggest future versions of Antoine and Christine if they can move past their youthful neuroses.
Even more unsympathetic characters get some leeway. Throughout the movie, Truffaut has made a point to show that a man, dark-haired and trenchcoated, has been following Christine. At the end of the film, when Christine and Antoine have finally gotten to a place of mutual commitment, this stalker approaches them. Truffaut holds the camera on him just long enough that you get nervous. But rather than pull out a weapon, as we half-expect him to, the stranger softens. He admits to Christine that after catching just a glimpse of her he had fallen in love, and couldn't help himself from telling her. When he leaves, Christine rightfully calls him crazy and Antoine agrees. But the anguish in the latter’s face conveys what could be read as surprised regret: a brief reflection for Antoine on how these last few months might have unfolded had he been more considerate of, straightforward with Christine and not so prone to beating around the bush. “Do you understand yourself?” a co-worker asks Antoine early in the film. Antoine doesn’t answer, but one can sense just as well what the answer might be: he doesn’t now, but someday he might. Sometimes you need to improvise for a while. A