"When a woman sends you a telegram, 'I love you', you go and see her."—Jean-Louis Duroc.
A Man and a Woman is the film that put French director Claude Lelouch on the map. It was enormously popular, made tons of money (on a very small budget), and dominated awards ceremonies in 1966 through 1968, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film to name just a few.
For Lelouch, it followed a financial failure, his 1965 film, Les Grands Moments. However much the director asserts himself as a relentlessly personal, art-for-art's-sake auteur who loathes Hollywood artifice, his most famous movie has the undeniable stink of a filmmaker pandering a bit in order to ensure his future.
Facts of the Case
Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimée, 8 1/2) is a production assistant in the movie business. Her young daughter, Françoise, attends a boarding school in Deauville. It's there that Anne meets race car driver Jean-Louis Duroc (Jean-Louis Trintignant, City of Lost Children) whose son, Antoine, also boards at the school.
As the two become increasingly attracted to one another, moving tentatively towards a relationship, we're made privy to the pasts that have left them with gaping emotional wounds. Can they overcome these pasts and connect with one another?
It's the look of A Man and a Woman that recommends it today, so long after its initial release. A raw little film shot by Lelouch with handheld cameras and available light in both color and black and white, it's a reminder that the sleekly produced modern Hollywood romance isn't the only way to go, that romantic films can benefit from the raw aesthetics of the low-budget independent. The story itself feels like a vehicle for Meg Ryan, but the look is pure Parker Posey territory.
Aimée and Trintignant are movie-star pretty, but Lelouch's style gives them both a weighty humanity, as do their performances. Like any respectable disciple of the French New Wave, Lelouche gives his actors plenty of room to improvise, to get to the heart of a scene via whatever path feels natural. The tentative nature of the interactions between Aimée and Trintignant—their halting eye-contact, pregnant pauses, nervous laughs—undercuts (in a good way) their sparkling good looks and movie-star mystique.
The film is often dismissed for the simplicity of its love story as a result of its charm disintegrating on subsequent viewings. It's use of flashback is engaging the first time out, without taxing the viewer's patience. The way it builds narrative tension around the identities and whereabouts of each of the leads' spouses is also entertaining: is it a movie about emotionally damaged spurned lovers, a grieving widow and widower, adulterers? This sleight of hand keeps you guessing but fails to pay off satisfactorily in the end, and disappears like vapor the second time through.
With the exception of some annoying specks that appear intermittently on the image and almost look like dirt on the lens of the camera since they're static over the moving image and last through entire shots, Warner's presentation of the film on DVD leaves little to complain about. Framed at an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1, colors are appropriately natural during the color sections, and black levels are solid with no bleeding in the black and white segments.
Which brings me to the strange case of the different film stocks used for the movie. Don't tie yourself in knots trying to deduce the artistic significance of Lelouch's use of both color and black-and-white photography (does one represent the present and the other the past? Is one or the other tied to a particular character's point of view?) because his reasons were strictly mercenary: he'd intended to shoot the entire thing in black and white because it was significantly less expensive to do so, but was informed American television rights could be procured if he shot in color. He struck a compromise, shooting interiors in black and white, and exteriors in color. That's all there is to it. The film stocks themselves mean nothing, but once you get into the rhythm of the film's shifting back and forth, it becomes a comfortable and even engaging conceit.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film's biggest flaw is that it manages to be bloated despite the simplicity of its story. There are endless scenes—as when we watch Duroc doing test laps in his race car—that accomplish little besides giving us the opportunity to look at Lelouch's stylish photography and beautiful stars, as well as pad the film's running time. Again, they're easy to accept the first time through, but taxing on a second pass.
Its real failure to engage, though, isn't intrinsic to the piece, some misstep by Lelouch, but a byproduct of the film's success and what it wrought in the intervening decades. One can clearly see A Man and a Woman as the mother of everything from 1970's awful Love Story to more modern (and higher quality) fare like When Harry Met Sally. For someone coming new to the film today, it offers a story we've seen a thousand times by now. And its familiar structure is served up with intelligence and great acting, but little in the way of wit or humor.
The DVD has two mono audio tracks, French and English. The original French is more robust and natural. While certainly not dynamic, it's hiss-free and the considerable amount of dialogue and music is clear and well-mixed. Be wary of "A Man and a Woman," the film's main theme. Written by Pierre Barouh and Francis Lai, it's got a bouncy, '60s cocktail-lounge appeal. It's pleasant…at first. Unfortunately, it's repeated ad nauseam during the film. The awful thing was in near constant rotation in my head for about 24 hours after the credits had finished rolling.
A Man and a Woman is a mixed bag of sorts. A victim of its own success, and the influence it had on subsequent films, its conceits seem stale and unoriginal today. That said, the actors' performances, combined with Lelouch's style of shooting, give the film a raw energy entirely appropriate for a romance.
There's no denying A Man and a Woman's significance in the history of film. Not only did its success spawn a sea of imitation, but it also heightened some of the American public's awareness of other more challenging and artistic foreign and art house cinema.
Considering all that, I can hardly find the film guilty. It's worth seeing at least once.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• 37 Years Later with Claude Lalouch
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