Boulevard (1960)

3 01 2013

One might think that following the success of The 400 Blows, Jean-Pierre Leaud would have been a big commodity in France. This is not the case, though, as this late effort from social realism veteran Julien Duvivier is his only credited role in between his famous first role and the next entry into the Antoine Doinel saga. Still, this feels like a very obvious attempt to capitalize on the success of Leaud’s debut performance, covering the same territory with teen angst. It’s still a nice effort from one of France’s most unfairly treated filmmakers, but this isn’t the film I would use to build an argument about someone’s greatness.

1

Fifteen year old Jojo has run away from home to escape his controlling stepmother. He manages to make ends meet with some odd jobs, and living on a roof overlooking Pigalle. His romantic interest, Jenny, is much older than him but he manages to convince himself that he’s a potential boyfriend. In the mean time, Jenny becomes involved with a former boxer, Dicky, who Jojo knows as a frequent to his father’s bar. He begins to take more of an interest in Marietta, a girl who is actually his age, but when money becomes an issue again, he might not have a way to finance a relationship.

2

I get the impression that one’s enjoyment of this film goes as far as they like JPL. Personally, I’m something of a fan so my enjoyment of this film probably goes further than it does for most. There’s an early sequence in which he gets drunk, which leads into a bar brawl. The scene is almost cartoony in its execution, Duvivier chooses to make everything intentionally wobbly, embodying the steadicam as a drunk’s shaky legs. It’s a silly scene as JPL himself stumbles around, but he seems to contribute a great deal of vitality to the scene, making it appear full of life and energy, as opposed to a silly, studio-bound attempt at realism.

3

JPL is fortunately, surrounded by great talent here. Duvivier is not really going out of his way to make something formally exciting, but he manages to get performances from his actors that simultaneously downplays the drama, but manages to evoke the mental chaos of being a youth. Magali Noel, fresh off a role in Fellini’s legendary La dolce vita,  plays his first and older love interest. She’s probably best known for her collaboration with Fellini, specifically 1973’s Amarcord, where she’s lusted after by teenage boys the same way she is here.

4

Leaud’s Jojo is rivaled by a washed out boxer, Dicky, played by a longtime French television actor Pierre Mondy. He’s largely unheard of outside of France, but some might remember him as Napoleon in Abel Gance’s The Battle of Austerlitz, which was released the same year as this film. Even less heard of is Monique Brienne, who plays Leaud’s younger love interest. This is her only credited screen role, which is a shame. She’s completely charming as Marietta, who is first ignored by Jojo on the grounds that she’s “just a kid.” We root for Jojo to finally notice her and he does, but his own stubbornness makes the relationship destined to fail.

5

The film’s conclusion is a little melodramatic. Being bullied by Dicky and seeing Marietta on a date with another boy, Jojo decides to jump from his roof of his tiny apartment. One can feel that Duvivier was trying to accomplish something as involving as the film that made Leaud famous but it never really comes close. The original Antoine Doinel was repeatedly neglected and ignored. It was through the experiences we saw him endure that made his story fascinating and what makes even the lightest entries in that series seem poignant. Here, Jojo seems oddly spoiled, a weird claim for a boy impoverished. His heartbreak is understandable but his teenage crushes don’t seem dramatic enough to really warrant something so dramatic. A film like Il Posto, which came out at around the same time deals with characters at a similar age but manages to depict those complicated teen feelings accurately and put them into a more meaningful context. Here, Jojo is close to being a brat crying wolf. This is understandable since many of Leaud’s characters could be bratty, but the martyr complex his character takes on here is ugly, especially when it seems to only come from him neglecting Marietta and her taking an interest in another boy.

6

The movie is still  charming, mostly because of Leaud’s bratty persona. There’s humor in the way his character constantly tries to perform both maturity and masculinity, but it’s so thinly veined that it’s more often cute. In one instance, he tells Dicky that he’s dating Jenny and that sometimes he has to hit her. This type of talk is terrible on paper, but knowing the character, such actions seem entirely unlikely. He’s simply explaining what he thinks masculinity expects of him. That seems like a comedic touch, but the film’s conclusion seems to support Jojo’s woman-shaming tendencies. As a group of friends try to talk him away from suicide he claims that “everyone is a bastard” and “all girls are bitches.” One of them explains that girls aren’t bitches, but they’re just girls, which seems to tickle Jojo’s funny bone. His weird misogyny seems to been validated and the film’s ending, which is meant to be life-affirming, is all of a sudden a lot darker.

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