Francois Truffaut’s charming 1968 romantic comedy, Stolen Kisses, opened in France four months after the paralyzing May strikes by students and workers that nearly succeeded in toppling the government of President Charles de Gaulle. The film was so thoroughly out of step with the radicalized cultural scene into which it was released that its popularity surprised everyone, perhaps Truffaut most of all. He hadn’t had a success of this magnitude since his lavishly praised 1959 debut, The 400 Blows. Stolen Kisses is one of several sequels he directed over the years. All of the films – there are five in total – star Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel, who we first meet as a twelve year old reform school delinquent in The 400 Blows. By the time of Stolen Kisses (the third in the series), he is a hapless young adult with a chaotic love life and a string of absurd dead-end jobs, from hotel clerk to private detective to TV repairman.
Stolen Kisses was shot quickly and inexpensively. Its light-hearted air of spontaneity undoubtedly contributed to its appeal to a burgeoning counterculture. The larger attraction may simply have been the character of Antoine Doinel. In addition to being an autobiographical extension of Truffaut, Doinel is also a classic picaresque underdog skittering along the fringes of society, mocking its conventions and living by his wits. Although Truffaut distrusted political filmmaking and went out of his way to avoid ideological rhetoric, it is one of the ironies of Stolen Kisses that the film manages to suggest a kind of youthful subversiveness in spite of itself. In the opening scenes, Doinel is booted out of the military for insubordination and numerous AWOL infractions. He laughs and makes faces as his commanding officer informs him that the dishonorable discharge means "you’ll never work for the government or any respectable company." While this scene plays like a 1960s antiwar satire (the commander sneers that Doinel probably has "communist friends" waiting for him in civilian life), it is based on Truffaut’s own disastrous military experiences in the 1950s, when he was jailed as a deserter and eventually thrown out of the army.
Doinel celebrates his freedom by running immediately to a bordello. His energetic sprint through crowded Paris streets is depicted with the effortless lyricism that Truffaut often brings to location filming (and is one of the hallmarks of the French New Wave film style that he pioneered). There are no soundstages or movie sets in Stolen Kisses. We never lose sight of the city and the bustle of automobiles and pedestrians. One of the film’s loveliest moments has Doinel returning to his dark and cramped apartment and opening a heavy curtain to reveal a breathtaking balcony view of Paris. This motif is repeated throughout the film. The city’s beauty – by day or night, or the silky blue half-light of dawn or dusk – is a magical backdrop glimpsed from the windows of cafes, shops, apartments, hotel rooms, wherever the story takes us. Rather than dwarfing the film’s characters, the city adds a life-affirming poetry and a shared destiny to the humblest of pursuits.
The film’s episodic structure contains an unusually large supporting cast. Truffaut took special care in choosing actors for Stolen Kisses and the result is a wonderfully rich ensemble. Claude Jade made her film debut here playing Doinel’s girlfriend, Christine. The role requires little more of her than eager affability, but she is perfect when sharing a "morning after" breakfast with Doinel and giving him an impromptu lesson in the art of buttering toast. Her parents are memorably played by Daniel Ceccaldi and Claire Duhamel. Ceccaldi’s role may represent the most pleasant and neurosis-free father in any movie of the era. He overflows with Dickensian warmth and geniality.
Stolen Kisses never stoops to become a generation-gap satire like The Graduate, released in America the previous year. In a phenomenon unique to France, the May 1968 student demonstrations grew to include factory workers, civil servants, and white-collar professionals. Political unrest wasn’t reduced (as it so often was in the U.S.) to a simplistic battle between middle-class parents and their children. Hence, a film like Stolen Kisses, which superficially resembles The Graduate on some levels, seems today more humanistic and universal than its trendy U.S. counterpart with its stereotypically rigid and repressed parental figures.
Antoine Doinel meets his own Mrs. Robinson midway through Stolen Kisses in the guise of Mrs. Tabard (Delphine Seyrig), the sensuous wife of a shoe store owner (the droll, scene-stealing Michel Lonsdale). Private detective Doinel is hired as a "periscope" to work in the store and observe if any employees are speaking ill of the owner, who is convinced that everyone dislikes him. Mrs. Tabard shares coffee privately with Doinel one evening after dinner. When the moment teeters toward seduction, Doinel bolts from the room in a hilarious display of sexual anxiety. The flirtatious subplot between Doinel and Mrs. Tabard was inspired by Balzac’s novel, The Lily of the Valley, a fictionalized account of the author’s youthful infatuation with an older woman. The book was a favorite of Truffaut’s, and Doinel is shown reading a copy at the beginning of the film.
An undercurrent of wistful melancholy lurks beneath the comedy of Stolen Kisses. It can be found in offhand comments, such as Doinel telling Christine that the reason he rarely wrote to her during his military stint is that he was usually in prison or the hospital. (Not only had Truffaut been a deserter, but he also spent time in an army hospital following a suicide attempt.) Melancholia can be found in the world weariness of Monsieur Blady (Andre Falcon), the head of the Blady Detective Agency, where Doinel is employed for much of the film. Because the agency specializes in cases of infidelity and adultery, there is a bittersweet interplay between the quiet desperation of the clients who come through the door and the harried investigators who are preoccupied with their own miseries or are themselves entangled in romantic intrigues. One of the detectives suffers a fatal heart attack while working at his desk. Truffaut doesn’t push too hard on any of this material. The gentle tone of Stolen Kisses seems keyed to Jean-Pierre Leaud’s unassuming poignancy in the role of Antoine Doinel. His relaxed improvisatory manner in front of the camera remains as fresh today as it was in 1968.
– Bob Wake