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“I see life as very hard; I believe one should have a very simple, very crude and very strong moral system…. This is why there can’t be any direct violence in my films. Already in The 400 Blows, Antoine is a child who never rebels openly. His moral system is more subtle than that. Like me, Antoine is against violence because it signifies confrontation. Violence is replaced by escape, not escape from what is essential, but escape in order to achieve the essential.” — François Truffaut
Bed and Board is a comedy about marriage, the desire to escape it, and the craftiness involved in running from one’s own desires. Antoine tries to achieve the “essential” by getting married, only to attempt escape through an affair and then to duck the affair by returning to the marriage. Like a fretful child, he’s drawn to subvert whatever situation he’s in. Family, of course, is a big subject for Antoine. And here he finally has his own. Having married the winsome yet intelligent Christine (Claude Jade) from Stolen Kisses—what more in a wife could he have asked for?—and fashioned the stable bourgeois life he lacked growing up, he’s still incorrigibly restless. “Mother’s Day is an invention created by the Nazis,” he tells Christine’s parents. “I like parents that are not my own,” he says to Christine.
Antoine and Christine are like presexual kids playing at marriage. Whenever we see them in bed together, they’re reading. When he reaches over to touch her breasts it’s only to point out that they don’t match. (He then wants to name them.) Sex is something to be done outside the marriage, and one of the film’s most tender scenes is between Antoine and a prostitute.
Space in the movie is both protective and claustrophobic. The couple occupies a small apartment without a phone surrounded by a courtyard. And for roughly the first third of the movie (except for a cozy dinner at Christine’s parents), Truffaut keeps all the action in and around their home. The courtyard (an atmosphere reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s The Crime of M. Lange and The Lower Depths) is inhabited by benign oddballs who act as extended family for Antoine. Christine gives violin lessons to children in their living room, and Antoine dyes and sells flowers directly beneath their window. Like Stolen Kisses, the movie is mostly composed of a series of eccentric episodes: the woman who habitually forgets to pay for her daughter’s violin lesson, the stranger in the courtyard who is accompanied by ominous music, the friend who keeps borrowing money.
In The 400 Blows, Antoine is menaced by a hostile outside world, but in Bed and Board he seems to have succeeded in creating a safe, insulated world of his own. The film is brisk and funny, but it’s also underscored by sadness and longing. Antoine’s discontent remains inescapable. When he dyes flowers (what a weird occupation!), there’s always one flower that refuses to change color.
Trouble comes when Antoine has to venture outside to get a job. Through a miscommunication, he’s hired at an American hydraulics company. The job, as far as I can determine, requires maneuvering toy boats with a remote control. (I love that Truffaut often gives his characters such seemingly arbitrary and bizarre jobs, jobs out of a kid’s imagination.) The adult side of Antoine struggles to write a novel, but the child wants to play. It’s on the cool green suburban lawn (worlds away from the secluded courtyard), playing with his boats, that he meets Kyoko, a beautiful Japanese woman. And it’s their affair that nearly destroys the marriage.
Cinematographer Nestor Almendros said, “Bed and Board is probably the least aesthetically pleasing of the films I have made for Truffaut.” But the movie has the same sad, drifting tone as its hero. Almendros’ camera work (while always elegant) has a casual, improvisational feel that perfectly matches the deceptively comic tone of the film. When Antoine first meets Kyoko, amidst a group of Japanese businessmen, the camera irises in first on her and then on him. The device indicates both connection and isolation. Similarly, Antoine and Christine are often framed at a distance from one another. At home the geography is such that they often chat through two separate windows. Most conversation is had on the move, Lubitsch-style, walking in and out of rooms. Their reconciliation, the film’s most emotional scene, takes place over the phone.
It’s difficult to think of anything Jean-Pierre Léaud does here as a performance. After all, he owns the character. His Antoine is sly and subversive, cold and frustratingly passive. He practically floats through the film. Léaud/Doinel never makes any real decisions, preferring to let life happen to him. It’s Kyoko who instigates the affair. When Antoine goes to the brothel, he becomes uncomfortable with the necessity of having to choose one girl over another. This maddening inability to act makes us so badly want to reach out to him. It’s been four movies and we’ve lived too long with Antoine not to demand that he shape up. We want to both shake him and save him. And we resent that we feel so sorry for him. His relationships are all about comfort, but once he gets comfortable he has to destroy it. Antoine’s assignations with the “exotic” Kyoko are presented as a series of dinners where he grimaces from having to sit cross-legged on the floor.
“Once a picture is finished it is sadder than I meant it to be,” Truffaut once wrote. And although Antoine ultimately returns to Christine, the ending of the movie is notably un-romantic. The joke is that they’ve become the typical married couple. The future of the relationship is more telling in an earlier scene between Antoine and Christine just after they’ve broken up. He’s been by to visit their son, Alphonse, and he walks her through the now dark and empty courtyard to a cab. She lashes out at him for the first time: “All you know is what you want. A kiss when you want it! Solitude when you want it! I’m not ‘yours on command.’ Not anymore.” He laments how unhappy he’ll be until he can finish his novel. He then declares: “You are my sister, my daughter, my mother.” Christine replies simply, “I’d hoped to be your wife.” Antoine’s trouble is that he can’t tell the difference. She feels sorry for him and invites him to a movie. “No, I’ll just go for a walk,” he says. As her taxi drives away, he goes directly to a brothel.