best film:  The 400 Blows is the correct answer here for Jean-Pierre Léaud because the rest of the main competition – the others on the masterpiece level – need to be disqualified due to his lack of substantive contribution to those films. When tackling the question of Léaud’s best films, one has to start by parsing and then extracting the miniscule roles and cameos. Counting everything, Léaud is in at least three (3) masterpieces – but it is not fair to count Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Weekend (1967) with Jean-Luc Godard as Léaud is just sort of wallpaper in the background for a few moments in these films. In Pierrot, Leaud is just hanging out barely in the frame in the theater scene – with every stitch of clothing on everyone chosen to match the painted red movie theater perfectly. In Weekend, Godard uses Leaud and Anne Wiazemky just sparingly – cameos from these two past stars of La Chinoise. Léaud has plenty of other films to choose from in the tier below The 400 Blows (and Pierrot and Weekend). Again, it is not really worth counting Alphaville (1965) as Léaud’s contribution is minimal – but Léaud is a larger part of Two English Girls (1971), Last Tango in Paris (1972) – though the juxtaposition of acting talent with Marlon Brando is a tough look for Léaud – and Day for Night (1973).


best performance: The 400 Blows. Léaud was just fifteen (15) years old when The 400 Blows essentially (always some debate here) started the French New Wave. This is just Léaud’s second (2nd) overall film and already his place in cinema history was assured.   Léaud’s work as the Antoine Doinel in the film is an example of exceptional acting – for any age. The famous freeze-frame final shot is deservedly iconic.  But the performance is much more than that. Antoine Doinel’s story is the finest example of a coming-of-age tale in cinema (arguments for Boyhood, The Apu trilogy, and some others) – the artform’s equivalent to Holden Caulfield – sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not – roguish and complex.


Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in one of cinema’s most quintessential frames – from Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. 


stylistic innovations/traits:  Jean-Pierre Léaud was born in 1944 in Paris and has nearly 100 film credits to his name – including twenty (20) archiveable films. The total screen time of those twenty (20) films may be closer to an actor with ten (10) or twelve (12) archiveable films with all of the cameos and shorter appearances. Despite working with Jean Cocteau, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Aki Kaurismäki – it is Jean-Pierre Léaud’s work with François Truffaut that lands him on this list. Truffaut knew best how to use Léaud and hide his blind spots as an actor.  All of Léaud ‘s best work came at a young age. Léaud played his The 400 Blows character, Antoine Doinel, for four (4) of these archiveable collaborations with Truffaut. Truffaut saw himself in Léaud – a surrogate.  Masculine Feminine is the meatiest of the Godard roles for Léaud. Godard’s use of Léaud is fascinating – both in comparison with how Godard uses Jean-Paul Belmondo, and how Truffaut uses Léaud. Léaud in Masculine Feminine has this sort of uncool desperation that Belmondo does not. Léaud gives off this sort of charmless arrogance. Léaud is better served under Truffaut.


directors worked with: Jean-Luc Godard (7),  François Truffaut (6), , Aki Kaurismäki (2) – including one hilarious role (albeit, again, a minor one) as an art collector in La Vie de Bohème, Jean Cocteau (1), Pier Paolo Pasolini (1), Bernardo Bertolucci (1)


Léaud in 1973’s Day for Night – the fifth (5th) of his six (6) archiveable films with Truffaut


top five performances:

  1. The 400 Blows
  2. Day for Night
  3. Two English Girls
  4. Stolen Kisses
  5. Bed & Board


Léaud as Claude Roc in Two English Girls (1971) – Léaud walks away looking like such a better actor than he does the after in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972).


archiveable films

1959- The 400 Blows
1960- The Testament of Orpheus
1965- Alphaville
1965- Pierrot le Fou
1966- Made in U.S.A.
1966- Masculine Feminine
1967- La Chinoise
1967- Weekend
1968- Stolen Kisses
1969- Porcile
1970- Bed and Board
1971- Two English Girls
1972- The Last Tango in Paris
1973- Day For Night
1979- Love on the Run
1985- Detective
1992- La Vie de Bohème
1996- Irma Vep
2001- What Time Is It There?
2011- Le Havre