Exploring The Ineffable Physicality of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Nobuhiro Suwa’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and other works

“You have to walk hand in hand with death through life.”

This is the truest line of dialogue spoken in Nobuhiro Suwa’s flawed yet captivating 2017 film The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and it is a barefaced lie. It is spoken by Jean Pierre Léaud, playing a thinly veiled version of himself, called Jean. The words are to his ex-lover, Juliette (Pauline Etienne) who may or may not have committed suicide, but did die mysteriously, at the age of 23. Jean, now 72, has started to see her, her ghost, her essence, as she has been preserved in his memory through Jean’s long years without her.

These words are true because they represent one of the rare times where Jean steps forward into coherence, and articulates what he is feeling. They are a lie because the film is, as well as being about old age, about youth, and the young people in this film, and the young person Léaud once was, are largely untroubled by death, and certainly aren’t walking hand in hand with it. According to this film, death is an abstract concept until it is an oncoming reality. Jean repeats the mantra that the years between seventy and eighty are the most interesting in a man’s life; the film strongly hints that this is because they may be his last.

The film is about Jean, on hiatus from a troubled film shoot, reconnecting with a place (a beautiful country house), and a person (his aforementioned lover), and assessing his future (death). A young group of troublesome children break into the house one day and then decide to film him without his knowledge, first filming him placing flowers on Juliette’s grave, then hiding unconvincingly behind vegetable stalls while Jean does some shopping. Initially the kids are frightened of Jean, and then intrigued. Jean is amused by them and perhaps touched by their insistence. Not realising that Jean is an actor, the children reach out to him and begin to plan a ghost story shot in the country house.

These are the two broad strokes that Suwa paints the film with; one half a beautiful elegiac ghost story, the other a ramshackle improvised comedy with a group of children. Suwa never fully unites these two sides, and the film succeeds in spite of this. But it does succeed. I cannot say that the approach is not unique; a film about the oncoming herd of the great beyond, that anchors its story in a group of children with their whole lives ahead of them. It makes utter logical sense before it works on any narrative level.

This film reminded me that sometimes an imperfect work can be more interesting than one that hits all the notes in the right order. It acts as a testament to the incredible power of Léaud’s presence on a screen, and his youth and former beauty shine out in glimpses that escape the cloak of time’s work on the face. Léaud, divisive though he may be, can do more with a pregnant pause than a lot of highly regarded actors can do with a monologue (as in an early scene where he is told that the film he is shooting is taking a break). There were times where simply observing his face, as this film frequently does, brought me to tears.

Perhaps this speaks to an uncommon feeling of warmth I have towards Léaud, but I also believe that most serious filmgoers familiar with the French New Wave would share these feelings. Of all the great actors, aside from perhaps Catherine Deneuve,  none have so bravely worked with so many great directors in so many varying projects. From Godard to Rivette, Skolimowski to Pasolini, and of course Francois Truffaut, Léaud has always been a force of pliable solidity amongst more or less every major figure of European cinema in the 20th century. A Léaud performance rarely varies in mannerism and movement, but his sense of pitch and tone is perhaps unparalleled. The playfulness of his (not so) mute beggar in Out 1 stands in sharp contrast to his doomed resignation in Two English Girls, and yet only Léaud can bring the curiosity necessary to humanise the former just enough that he doesn’t remain a cipher, and the lightness necessary to soften the harshness of the latter.  Perhaps the only legitimate criticism of Léaud is that he doesn’t move like a normal person, he moves too self-consciously, like someone who knows they’re in a movie. My answer to this is; this is just how Léaud moves.

So much of Léaud’s essence and persuasiveness as an actor rests on his youth, both his abundance of it, and sudden lack of it, and it is telling that some of his more interesting work has come from his later period, when he has played into the fact that he was once beautiful but is no longer. Observe his performance in Kaurismaki’s morbid yet hopeful 1990 comedy, and miniature masterpiece, I Hired A Contract Killer. He plays a stale bureaucrat pushed out of a finance company, who after a series of failed suicide attempts contacts a hired gun to finish the job; a pretty pathetic role in a typically moribund work from the Finnish king of enlightened miserabilism. Yet Léaud, just beginning to settle into the mode he’s been working in fully since Bonello’s The Pornographer, fully commits to how sad his character his, and more to the point, is fully able to do so. His mere presence in the cast adds an extra shot of pathos, as we, the viewer, have seen him as a young man, and can understand why he might appear to have fallen on hard times. We cannot help but compare him to his previous looks, and understand his anguish.

There is one sense in which it can be said that Léaud has not aged, he has simply become. Take his fits of hysteria at the end of Eustache’s bravura The Mother and the Whore; a distinctly intense moment in what is, ostensibly, a film by and about the various ways in which young men can be entitled and leery. The fit that Léaud succumbs to doesn’t just evoke childhood, that peculiar form of childishness in twentysomething men who should know better.

In Lion, Léaud has his moments of childlike prankishness, but the physical heft that he might have once brought is no longer within reach; yet he hints, with his eyes (those eyes), a vigorous hand gesture (those hand gestures), and we can see that yes, this is the same young man we have seen grow up onscreen.

The difficulties with the film are directly proportional to how good Léaud’s work is in it, and how well Suwa frames and directs him; as interesting as it is to create a film about a man contemplating the end of his life and cushion it within the improvised misadventures of a group of likeable children, there were a number of moments where I just wanted the film to shut up and focus on Léaud for a little while longer.

This is selfishness on my part, and no critic or writer, unless they’ve directed a film of their own, can ever say ‘this is what the director should have done instead’. And I am able to appreciate Suwa’s vision. Nevertheless, the film feels wrenched in two by its own form, and it’s a difficult angle at which to approach the film, as my issue isn’t that Suwa didn’t do something; I feel very strongly that he did everything he intended to.

And yet. Just observe the scenes with him and Juliette. The optics of an older French man having romantic conversations with a woman in her twenties are , to say the least, wonky, and yet Léaud manages not only to pull it off but to invoke genuine pity and heartache, by calculating with precision his aloofness and distance. And when she disappears, he reacts as one does when awaking from a beautiful dream that one is sad to leave; with quiet resignation and a melancholic sigh. His performance isn’t one of lustful lechery, but instead a deeply felt regret at his life lived without her. He turns the potentially spurious into the universal; not easy, and yet to Léaud, as simple as breathing.

The form of the film is a good fit for the subject. Suwa shoots it with a bucolic distance, often setting the camera far away from the performers so we can take in alongside them the scenery, the extras, the lakes in the distance and the beautiful curved cobbled streets and sash windows. The colours are bright and vibrant, with sharp blues whenever Juliette is onscreen, and a pastoral mishmash of browns and greens whenever the children are around. Very occasionally the rhythm of certain scenes seemed off, as if it was cutting too quickly and not in tandem with the movement of the actors, but I am willing to concede this may have been intentional, as much is made of Léaud’s awkwardness in emotional contexts, and the scenes in question were invariably expressive ones.

It is, then, an inexact and wanting, yet personal and commendable, and visually compelling, film, that almost ascends to greatness simply by being about what it’s about. It forces you to not just observe, but understand, Léaud’s body, his roving lower chin, his mannered gait, his frequent hand gestures, and how it remains just as sufficient a vehicle for expression as the one in the slimmer, slinkier physical performances that Léaud would turn in like maths homework year after year in the sixties.

Suwa, to his credit, brings the entire film together with the very final shot, which wisely mirrors the very first, and is the most explicitly metatextual moment in a film that persistently toes the line between reality and otherwise. The shot is a masterpiece in its own right, and could work as a short film lasting a few minutes. I shan’t ruin it, but; look at Jean’s eyes.

Think about what Léaud might be seeing, and try not to draw hope from it.

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