I DON'T know a single admirer of Francois Truffaut, myself included, who does not throw around the word "love" when talking about him. There are other great film directors here and there, but it is only Truffaut who inspires us to embrace each other in the lobby. We can never forget that he does that to us and we adore him for it. And yet I think we are doing this man a disservice. For Truffaut is less concerned with our embrace than with what happens when we leave the theatre, when the kissing stops, when we take the subway home.
Bed and Board (Domicile Conjugal), this director's latest work, is the final episode in his remarkable cycle of films utilizing his autobiographical persona, Antoine Doinel. As in the previous segments of this informal series ( The 400 Blon's, Love at Twenty, and Stolen Kisses ), the hero is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud and his dilemma has to do with the conflict between his grandest visions of romance and the dulling routine that is in reality his existence. With variations. Antoine's problem is shared by the heroes of most of Truffaut's non-Doinel films as well- but nowhere is it as painfully brought forth as in Bed and Board. After fifteen years of fighting for his fantasies. Antoine at last gives up in this picture. Truffant's new movie deals a death blow to a hero of now legendary proportions and, in the process, chills much of the hope this director had passed on to us in the possibility that romantic love might actually save us in the end.
Bed and Board picks up Antoine's story where Stolen Kisses left it off. He is now married to the girl-next-door. Christine Darbon (Claude Jade), he courted in the earlier picture, and he is still trying to find a job which he will be able to keep. All the territory one might expect to find in a film about the first year of a marriage is here: the trivial spats, the role conflicts, the discussions about toothpaste, the birth of the first child, the first extra-marital affair. But as one expects, Antoine Doinel does not accept this rigmarole as an unquestionable natural order. He fights hard to break up the monotony until there is nothing left to do but give himself up to the dailiness of life.
THIS final defeat is decidedly different from the denouements of the other Doinel pictures. The 400 Blows ended with Antoine on the beach, granted at least the illusion of freedom and much of the hope; there was the possibility that the cruel prison of his youth now belonged largely to the past. When Antoine and Christine finally get together at the end of Stolen Kisses, we were allowed the luxury of betting on their marriage as a successful vehicle for maintaining the esprit of the romantic, non-confining Paris Truffaut lovingly displays throughout that film.
But, this time around, Paris is again a jail: the movie opens with Antoine in a courtyard. We see him attempting through some chemical process to turn white carnations into blue, green and violet flowers- but there is little sunlight and only temporary success. When Antoine introduces electricity into his experiment the flowers blow up in his face (as, later on a bouquet of roses almost literally drops dead in his apartment). Antoine gives up and goes to work for an American hydraulic firm where everybody is mechanized to the point where even exchanges of affection have about as much spontaneity as the whirrings of a computer.
No matter where Antoine goes he is haunted by the brie-a-brace and human beings that form the junk-heap of his society. As in 400 Blows, there are garbage cans and arguing couples at every turn. As in Stolen Kisses. he constantly meets up with the dead and the lonely harbingers of his own doom. In this case there is a recluse in his apartment building who is watching TV until the distant day when "Marshal Petain is buried in Verdun"; an old school chum (who appeared briefly in the earlier movie) wandering the streets in zombie-fashion to borrow money; a neighborhood woman who makes feeble amorous advances, more out of habit than anything else; and a mysterious, silent young man whom all in the community assume to be a strangler (but, in fact, turns out to have an identity considerably more pathetic).
Christine's charming father of the earlier film reappears this time as the gloomy patron of a whore house ("It takes a good house to make a happy home," he explains lamely to Antoine). Most pathetic of all, though, is Antoine's extracurricular lover, a speechless Japanese girl whose expression of devotion is the almost casual remark. "If I commit suicide with anyone, I'd like it to be with you."
MORE defeating than any of Antoine's peripheral involvements, of course, is his marriage itself. Christine, in the words of one character, turns out to be the perfect "bourgeois" girl, a virgin before marriage, a domestic. She is nice enough, but she is also a product of the society which Antoine spent his youth trying to outwit. He treats Christine badly in this film, but it is a haphazard cruelty; he picks fights with her over everything from the newly born baby's name to the thank-you letter he must write to the Senator who arranged the installation of their telephone. Antoine is destructive in all this bickering, as well as in his affair, but it is hard to condemn him for it. There is no enthusiasm to his indecencies; rather, it is just the desperate, almost random lashings out of a man who rightfully cannot adjust to the prospect of settling down.
When he does capitulate, it is not unlike the final defeat of Victor at the end of Truffaut's last film, The Wild Child (which was dedicated to Leaud). Having been tamed by civilization, Victor must finally accept love on his captor's terms, thereby closing off the possibilities of life that had been his in the forest. By the conclusion of Bed and Board, Antoine and Christine have transformed their relationship into an apparently mindless mechanism, causing their next-door neighbor to remark to her husband that the newlyweds are now "really in love."
But love is actually a moot point in this film. Antoine's one recorded moment of true passion remains his illicit fling with the shoe-store lady, Fabian Tabard, in Stolen Kisses. The first few notes of the Charles Trenet ballad ("I Wish You Love") that underlined the earlier film sneaks onto the soundtrack of Bed and Board every once and a while- but this time it quickly breaks off into an atonal clanging sound.
Truffaut, however much we may love him, demonstrates the impossibility of our affection once and for all in his new film. He dashes not only the small hopes left to us by the other Doinel pictures, but also those allowed by Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player and Mississippi Mermaid. We should have known it was coming, for our adoration of this director has always been based on our sense of his understanding that love is not sweet, simple and easy no matter what its appearances. Embracing in a lobby or a park or a church will solve nothing. We have grown up with Truffaut and, like him, we must accept the realization that our only real hope comes fleetingly and by chance- we must, after all find salvation in those occasional and unlikely kisses we might still be able to steal.