- Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Original Screenplay (Claude Lelouch and Pierre Uytterhoeven).
- British Academy Award Winner for Best Actress (Anouk Aimee)
- Golden Globe Winner for Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Motion Picture Actress (Anouk Aimee)
Claude Lelouch’s breakthrough film is a snappy mix of style, improv, and beautiful faces, not to mention a fetishistic love for fast automobiles, but perhaps the best way to approach this central work of France’s sixties nouvelle vague is as a contemporary romantic fable.
Highly influential in film technique as well as its free-form storytelling, A Man and a Woman is ostensibly focused on the romance that develops between what appears to be married parents who visit their respective children at a boarding school in the coastal town of Deauville.
What begins as a chance encounter evolves into friendship and fascination, and each character – script girl Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimee), racing car driver Jean-Luc Duroc (Jean-Louis Trintignant) – clearly enjoys the courting process, settling for quality time rather than a series of intense affairs destined to flame out.
Perhaps the maturity of the characters (and time-consuming courting) are also tied to the adultness of the story, and while Lelouch generally discards clichéd schmaltz between the couple, he also satirizes lovey-dovey flashback vignettes by packaging them like adverts.
Certainly in the case of Anne, her moments with stuntman / husband Pierre feel like genre archetypes compacted into some kind of fashion or lifestyle TV ad, whereas Jean-Louis’ marital highlights are the opposite: he’s seen frequently on the road prepping, training, and driving competitively, while Valerie (Valérie Lagrange) is the long-suffering wife willing to accept long temporal separations because she’s addicted to her husband.
In both cases, however, Jean-Louis and Anne are devoted to their children – born in what are hinted as being rather tough marriages because of pressing careers – and it’s the kids which clinch the perfectness of the parents’ encounter: the adults need each other’s company, patience, tenderness, and compassionate parenting skills in order to reform their separate lives into a singular, traditional family. At least that’s the underlying goal.
Lelouch uses an extremely simple visual device to comment on the grey illicitness of their palling around: glimpses of wedding rings. Regardless of past events, both wear rings openly and willingly, as statements on being faithful to their past lives, and the brief views of their ringed fingers conveys a character’s unease, hesitation, or blatant confidence in pursuing a gradual friends-with-benefits liaison.
Stylistically, Lelouch draws from his own documentary years, but he also adds a visual scheme that’s rabidly commercial, offset by Godardian jump cuts, and goosed with changing film stocks and grains without seemingly any rhyme or reason, except perhaps with colour being symbolic of reality, black & white of stark emotions and naked candor, grainy black & white for the grimy and physically demanding racing scenes, and sepia for the loosening of nerves between the potential lovers.
Whether the couple consummates their friendship with intercourse is often kept at the margins, and Lelouch seems more interested in extended montages where his characters are in, around, or driving cars. He is a director obsessed with the vehicle and its beauty as a sub-character in the story, and there are few scenes where there isn’t a car onscreen.
His filmmaking style also abides by few rules: audio from the flashbacks may bleed into reality, Jean-Louis’ original description of his profession is dramatized as a sepia-toned film vignette where he’s a gleeful little pimp; and Anne’s recollections of her husband are told through song: Pierre’s interest in samba has him singing dialogue like a staged extract from a Jacques Demy film.
The salutes to fellow contemporaries and peers doesn’t end there: Jean-Louis Trintignant’s first scene has him being ‘chauffered’ in a red Mustang, and the actor performs his smart-assed dialogue like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless (1960), with a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the non-repetitiveness of Francis Lai’s famous theme. The score - the composer’s feature film debut - is derived from the famous male-female duet with organ, but that single version which became a hit isn’t heard until 80 mins. into the movie, when the romance becomes serious. The key to the couple’s status is in the specific variation Lai plays, because the single version correlates with giddy, positive turns in the narrative.
The most interesting score cue is a lush string version with orchestra that’s first heard during Anne’s recollection of meeting Pierre while working on a film, and it reflects Lelouch’s toying with film conventions: it’s faux dramatic, macho western music that plays over courtship scenes, as well as Jean-Pierre’s racing scenes - perhaps inferring the story is pure myth.
One can also see traces where Lelouch’s film subsequently influenced certain Hollywood filmmakers. The fractured editing and docu-style camerawork were picked up and diversified via split-screen montages by director Norman Jewison in The Thomas Crown Affair (not to mention the flippant dune buggy montage between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway).
McQueen himself adopted long lens shots of fast-moving cars in daylight / nighttime / early morning rainfall in Le Mans (1971), a minimalist drama about one driver among a sea of competitors. McQueen’s fleeting, sympathetic encounter with a racer’s widow vaguely echoes the core reasons Anne and Jean-Louis ultimately continue their relationship: a need to fill a deep emotional void.
Thomas Crown and Le Mans are also graced with silky jazz-pop scores from Michel Legrand, a composer whom Francis Lai evokes with his elegant theme variations.
Warner Home Video’s DVD includes a clean transfer of the film, plus optional original French and English dub tracks.
The extras are strong, starting with the featurette “37 Years Later with Claude Lelouch” where the director describes the film’s genesis, and filming, including the economic issues that mandated the use of colour and back & white film for interiors and night scenes (a tactic also adopted by Tinto Brass for Deadly Sweet, his own New Wave effort from 1967, which coincidentally co-starred Trintignant), and the use of telephoto lenses to prevent camera noise from ruining dialogue scenes – an amusing irony where economic and practical decisions created a distinct style. Lelouch also explains his use of pre-recorded music prior to filming, and his flexible directorial style which allowed for sudden script changes, tangential scenes, and improvised dialogue from the actors.
There’s also a lengthy vintage making-of featurette with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, and on-set interviews which show an excited cast and crew making a film no one expected would become an international and Oscar-winning hit.
Lelouch’s later effort to recapture the magic of his beloved couple in A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later (1986) was generally unsuccessful, and while the movie’s worth a peek, fans may wish to let their own conclusions to Anne and Jean-Louis’ 1966 union settle before giving Lelouch’s coda a try
Lelouch’s style is powerfully cinematic, and would look grand on Blu-ray, with every colour and piece of film grain maxed out in HD. The studio should seriously consider a double-bill of the 1966 and 1986 films.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan