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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Claude Lelouch | Un homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman)


an unsung opera
by Douglas Messerli 

Claude Lelouch and Pierre Uytterhoeven (writers), Claude Lelouch (director) Un homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman) / 1966

Forgive my rather didactic title, but the quite pleasant Claude Lelouch film of 1966, A Man and a Woman simply demanded it. In a time before sexually correct films (and, of course, there are still many such films remaining today), Lelouch’s loving fable about a man and a woman, is far more about the male persona than the brown-eyed beauty whom the dominant males pursue. 
      Although Anne Gauthier’s (Anouk Aimée) husband has already died before the film begins, Pierre (Pieere Barouh), a dashing cinematic stunt-man, remains a presence in this film throughout, even singing several of film’s major songs, including the lovely Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes Brazilian-bases “Samba Saravah,” and Francis Lai’s “In Our Shadow,” and “Stronger Than Us.” His presence is, in fact, felt throughout the entire film, and the scenes in which he is portrayed with the heroine present him, as Jean Louis Duroc (a handsomely young Jean-Louis Trintignant) suggests, as a kind of “god.” 
      That he may have been, like Duroc himself, a flamboyant peacock of a man, sometimes untrue to his wife, is never hinted at. Duroc himself is so clearly beloved by his own wife that when, after crashing on a race course, when he comes out of surgery still in critical condition, she has “nervous breakdown” and kills herself. Never mind that when Duroc meets the beautiful Anne on a weekly trip to visit his school-boarded son, Antoine, he quickly sends his current mistress (Yane Berry) on her way. Women in this film are secondary to male desires and egos.
       Indeed, the film begins with Anne teaching her young daughter two “fairy tales” both of which warn her of male danger and dominance: the story of the bad wolf swallowing up Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and Red Riding Hood herself, and, even more to the point, Blue Beard. 
       Meanwhile, Duroc is teaching his young son to take charge, pretending a role as a chauffeur who might drive his father to the golf course, the go-carts, or just to the piers, as if a child of 6 or 7 might be able to drive away on his own volition. It is a lesson in male competence and superiority that I never learned. But then Duroc, like Gauthier’s now dead husband, is a truly “dangerous” man, a race track driver, who is willing to put his life on the line, just as did her stuntman husband had. In short, the men in Gauthier’s life are both macho-heroes who are attracted to her quieter script-girl persona. She can’t even imagine herself as an actress or someone possibly in control of her own existence; she is simply a craftsperson, a woman who helps to make things happen. 
    His “Revving up” song, played soon after while he speeds along the local race track, long served throughout the later 60s as the introductory music for numerous US television news channels, its driving rhythms and lyrical interludes seemingly representing the newscasters own determination and compassion.
       Fortunately for Gauthier—and for the movie—both the macho heroes with whom she falls in love are, underneath their personas, gentle and loving beings, which the movie helps to reveal through its highly sentimental and actually quite loving music by Lai. Yes, the “la-ba-ba-ba-ba” lyrics of Lai’s lovely songs are quite maudlin, but they truly do reveal the sensations of falling in love, and, if the script is quite simple-minded (even a French 1 student might make his way quite easily through the dialogue of this simple-minded dialogue) the Deauville landscape, spread out in long linear takes, is absolutely beautiful. The children, the offspring of both Duroc and Gauthier get along quite nicely, like the older sister and slightly younger brother they might become. And in their outings—beautifully portrayed with the fresh sea-spray and vast vistas of sun-lit afternoons of Lelouch’s camera—everything is absolutely spectacular. 
      Given the importance of the score, Lelouch’s film reminds one again and again of the French operatic films of Jacques Demy—only here the singers generally talk (except for Barouh). The story is surely operatic, even soap-operaish, and it recognizes and even admits to it relationships with that genre. At one point, as Duroc rushing from his finish in the La Mans run back to Paris and on to Deauville, stops by a BP gas station—not quite as grand as the beautiful Nino Castelnuovo’s brightly lit Esso station of Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg—but whose sleepy manager, nonetheless, proffers Duroc the same “super or regular” as Guy offers his former lover Catherine Deneuve. Of course, Duroc, like Deneuve in the earlier film, prefers “supérieur.”
      Duroc’s first sexual encounter with Gauthier, however, is a failure; she’s still imagining her stuntman husband. It takes a trip back to Paris to finally win her over. Never mind the “La-ba-ba-ba-ba” chorus. The music still wins over any but the most hard-hearted hearts, mine included. And Gauthier (apparently a surprise even in the filming) gladly embraces him: he is, after all, a perfect replacement for her adventurous former lover—and besides, as her own fantasies portrayed him, he is a far richer “pimp.”

Los Angeles, April 26, 2016

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