La passion rest in suspension dans le monde, ready to traverse les gens qui veulent bien if laisser traverse par it.
Marguerite Duras, L’Amant
In 1979, in an interview for the broadcast “Le Cinéma des cinéastes” on France Culture radio, French filmmaker Claude Lelouch said he considered himself a “bricoleur” or “repairer”, not only for damaged objects, but also for people with unhealing wounds. Introducing himself as an inveterate optimist, Lelouch explains that filming is his way of “fixing” people, of looking for solutions to life’s dramas and, in this way, showing viewers that things can get better. In the same interview, Lelouch also suggests that the reason why many consider his cinema uninteresting or even “irritating” has less to do with the quality of the films than with the incompatibility between his optimism and the depressive tendency that characterizes the “intellectual” cinema of the epoch — something he will never forgive filmmakers of his generation, namely Jean-Luc Godard, who he accuses of killing the Nouvelle Vague immediately after creating it.
In fact, Lelouch’s films have long been overlooked in the panorama of French cinema in the second half of the 20th century. Ravaged by critics and denigrated by his peers, he is seen as a minor filmmaker, too commercial, too naive and affected by stylistic and sentimental mannerisms. Your journey as a “spoiled boy” [expressão-título do seu filme de 1988 com Jean-Paul Belmondo, Itinéraire d’un enfant gâté (Itinerário de uma Vida)] in the country of the cinema it is done mainly against the movement of the Nouvelle Vague. Although the influence of technical innovations and formal experiments in the 1960s on his way of filming is notorious (especially with regard to the discontinuity of editing, the dissociation between image and sound and handheld camera filming), Lelouch maintains faithful to the tradition of narrative cinema, and interested in telling stories with “simplicity and emotion” about people who have suffered hard blows, but who continue to believe in their right to love and happiness.
It is this restorative dimension of love – and, by extension, of cinema – that allows the filmmaker to reconcile the apology of the dazzling encounter and passion with the acceptance of the inevitable ruptures and disappointments.
These ingredients are present in several of his best-known films from the 60s and 70s, in which we systematically rediscover the same types of situations and characters, played by luxury casts with infallible chemistry: live pour live (Living to Live, 1967) with Annie Girardot and Yves Montand, Robert and Robert (Robert and Robert, 1978) with Charles Denner and Jacques Villeret, or à nous deux (An Adventure for Two, 1979) with Catherine Deneuve and Jacques Villeret. Judging by the synopsis, the same hopeful attitude towards love will persist in Lelouch’s most recent film, yet to be released, announced as also his latest, entitled L’amour c’est mieux que la vie (2021).
As early as 1966, the phrase “L’amour est bien plus fort que nous”, sung by the voice of Nicole Croisille, was heard in un homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman, 1966), a “repair” film par excellence, which earned Lelouch his only Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well as the Oscars for Best Foreign Film and Best Original Screenplay. It’s curious that the film is from the same year as male female (Male Female, 1966) by Jean-Luc Godard, although the similarity between the two is due to the duet that the title suggests. For the rest, Lelouch owes almost everything to the unforeseen success of un homme et une femme, which not only contributed to rehabilitating its reputation within the international film community, but also proved to be an inexhaustible source of ideas, coincidences and encounters, starting with those of the protagonists themselves, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimé, filmed again by the filmmaker 25 years later.
In un homme et une femme, we meet for the first time Jean-Louis Duroc, race car driver, and Anne Gauthier, film annotator, two widowers who divide their time between Paris and Deauville, where they go on weekends to visit their children ( Antoine and Françoise). It is at the end of one of these visits to the boarding school that they cross paths and decide to start sharing rides. On these trips, we learn more about his past through flashbacks melodious, like the one that introduces us to Anne’s husband, a movie double who died in an accident during some filming, to the sound of “Samba Saravah” sung by “français le plus brésilien de France”, Pierre Barouh. Jean-Louis and Anne’s memories replace dialogue and open up momentary color gaps in black and white or sepia photography. The montage, full of modern tics, but not without charm, reinforces the complicity that sprouts between them and becomes eloquent through the exchanges of close-up looks. The film’s emotional intrigue is thus woven of projections and introspections, remaining in Off, with rare exceptions, the physical approximations between the couple.
Between the first two car trips, there is what I consider the most beautiful sequence in the film, which I propose to review in this text: the walk along the beach that Anne and Jean-Louis take with their children. Accompanied by the instrumental “melo-jazz” by Francis Lai (omnipresent in much of Lelouch’s filmography), the scene is composed of three distinct moments, in which the camera invests itself in a reflection on the paths and deviations in the intimacy between the characters.
The first moment is a sequence plan of the couple walking their children. The desire to get closer is suggested by the position and movement of the camera, initially far away, observing them in a traveling slow and silent; however, Anne’s voice is barely audible, the camera makes a zoom of retreat until the human figures are lost in the sand. We quickly realized that Anne and Jean-Louis use their children to talk about themselves: “Antoine told me that he had already noticed Françoise a long time ago and thought she was very beautiful”, confesses Jean-Louis shyly. We can assume that this is not the only pretext hidden in the film, as Lelouch often admits to resorting to cinema to address his own experiences.
The filmmaker once said, in 1965, after the failure of Les Grands Moments : “When things go wrong, I go to Deauville. It was the 13th of September… I was walking along the beach and in the distance – it was very bad weather that day – I saw a woman who was also walking. From a distance, she looked incredibly beautiful. There was also a girl playing beside her. I tried to get close to that woman… And as I got closer, I was looking for an explanation.” Lelouch may not have had enough courage to speak to him, but it was from this memory-image that the idea of telling the story of un homme et une femme. We could almost interpret this sequence shot on the beach as a projection of the souvenir from the director himself, in an attempt to solve his dilemma through Jean-Louis, the man who finally managed to approach the unknown beauty of Deauville Beach.
Let’s return to the sequence on the beach: the moment Anne’s voice is heard, the camera moves away from the characters, as if it were necessary to leave them alone so that they could express their feelings. This camera movement introduces a deviation in the montage — “déviation”, as one reads on a signpost — composed of a series of shots that show the cold and uninhabited landscape of Deauville in works. At that moment, it is as if Anne and Jean-Louis’ subjectivities merged with the camera’s conscience and the camera was able to discourse on the emerging intimacy between them. It is, therefore, in the absence of the characters that the camera hints at the promise of a mutual reconstruction of the wreckage of their sentimental lives, if they allow themselves to do so — and here we inevitably recall the final scene of L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) by Michelangelo Antonioni.
The third moment of the sequence brings us back to the beach, with a traveling frontal, as if we were sliding along the seafront looking at the sea. It is then that Anne draws attention to the figure of a man who walks in the distance holding a dog by the leash. The dialogue continues on Off, leaving the couple out of the field and again deviating from the theme: “Have you ever heard of the sculptor Giacometti?”, asks Jean-Louis. “He said an extraordinary phrase: in a fire, between a Rembrandt and a cat, I would save the cat.” Anne adds: “And I would let the cat go right away.” Between art and life, Giacometti would choose life. Lelouch, too, in his films seems to value fidelity to life more than to art. What, then, will Anne and Jean-Louis choose?
The man and the dog reappear in two moments of the film that underline their symbolic value. In the first circumstance in which Anne and Jean-Louisse rush into each other’s arms, on the beach at Deauville, after she has declared herself in a telegram, and Jean-Louis has driven all night to meet her, we see two plans of the dog that runs free on the sand, never straying too far from its owner. Anne and Jean-Louis also seem to have let go of the bonds that held them to the past and feel free to experience a new opportunity for life together. Everything happens to the sound of Francis Lai’s joyful “Da ba da ba da, da ba da ba da”, transformed by collective memory into “Cha ba da ba da”, an onomatopoeic chant that rhythms the suspense until the moment of the enactment. However, later, in bed with Jean-Louis, Anne is haunted by memories of her husband: the sepia-toned scene is constantly interrupted by painful and sudden flashbacks in colors that force her to admit that, to her, he’s not dead yet. Finally, a final shot of the sidewalk on the waterfront, now wet by the rain, brings back the man walking the dog, once again on the leash – after all, perhaps Anne was not yet ready to fully live a new love. The figures of man and dog will later be revisited by Lelouch in toute une vie (Toda Uma Vida, 1974), an unloved film where the filmmaker’s life, world history and the history(s) of cinema get mixed up.
despite un homme et une femme to end on a note of hope about the possibility of mutual reparation, when, decades later, Lelouch decides to recover the characters of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimé, we realize that this is not exactly how things turned out. In fact, so much Un homme et une femme, 20 ans déjà (A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later, 1986), of which the director himself confesses not to be proud and even prefers to ignore its existence, as the most recent Les plus belles années d’une vie (The Best Years of Our Life, 2019) are less sequels to the 1966 film than attempts to “rescue” the love story between Jean-Louis and Anne. As Luís Mendonça wrote in the retrospective of Jean-Louis Trintignant in 20The French Film Festival, in 2019, is in Les plus belles années d’une vie that “the border that separates the worlds of the character, the actor, the director and the cinema itself begins to lose clarity”. In this film, Lelouch allows viewers and actors themselves to revisit their shared memories, in an attempt to fight as nostalgic as it is audacious in the face of aging.
Recovering a film by Lelouch perhaps involves recognizing that, more than the maxim “women, cars and cinema” — the filmmaker’s three assumed passions — it is the verbs “rediscover and repair” that best sum up the essence of his cinema. These ingredients will rarely guarantee critical or commercial success on the scale of un homme et une femme; but they testify to the filmmaker’s fidelity to the stories, characters and actors who have fueled his cinema over the decades and who reflect his optimism about life. The story initiated by the 1966 film is certainly Lelouch’s work that least needs to be rehabilitated, but it is also the one that best fulfilled its repairing and reenactment-enhancing mission.