Thursday, November 7, 2013

Billy Wilder | Love in the Afternoon

lectures on love
by Douglas Messerli
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (screenplay), Billy Wilder (director) Love in the Afternoon / 1957

Although Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon has been described by some critics, such as The New York Times’ Bowley Crowther, as a “sophisticated romance” in the Lubitsch tradition, seeing it again the other day, I perceived it as a somewhat clumsy affair performed by a truly mismatched cast.

     At the center of Wilder’s fable is Ariane Chavasse, Audrey Hepburn playing true to type as a fey young and clever, but ever so innocent, slightly fragile, and always well-dressed lover of an older man (she’s played the same roles with Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Louis Jourdan, and Rex Harrison), in this case a supposed business magnate playboy, Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper). Although we know that in real life Cooper truly was a playboy of sorts, having had affairs with both women and men—from gay movie actor Anderson Lawler, to Clara Bow, Lupe Váldez, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Tallulah Bankhead, and Patricia Neal—Cooper’s acting style, his shy and self-effacing and anything but romantic gestures throughout the film—lovemaking presented in laconic lectures instead of acts—make it almost impossible to imagine that this American industrialist travels throughout Europe picking up the wives of business men and, at least in one case, a duo of women. The only romance that wafts through the air of this film is the corn-ball choruses of gypsy music played throughout.

     But even if you could imagine Cooper as a sex-swinger, it would  be nearly impossible to picture Maurice Chevalier, speaking English with an Parisian French accent that no longer exists in the capitol, as Ariane’s father, let alone as a private detective working on tawdry cases wherein he tracks down for his client’s their wives’ lovers.

     Cary Grant, understandably turned down Cooper’s role, but evidently talent agent Paul Kohner was convinced that the role Claude Chavasse would be the perfect match for Chevalier. Unfortunately, the three work together a bit like vinegar, oil, and pepper, without Wilder having bothered to whip them up into a proper dressing.

     Knowing that her father is on Flannagan’s trail, Ariane rushes, cello in hand, to his hotel room, saving Mr. X’s wife from being discovered by her husband and Flannagan from possibly being shot, falling in love with Flannagan herself. Because of her evening cello concerts, Ariane meets her new lover (over the next year) in the afternoons only, when, briefly chucking her cello in the hall, she takes on the air of a femme fatal recounting her dozens of previous lovers. If the elderly playboy can believe that this young spit of woman has already had that many affairs, he must be a bigger dunderhead that even Cooper’s wooden-jaw acting suggests. The “thin girl,” as Flannagan calls her, is, of course, a complete innocent, head over heels in love the industrialist, in part, because of romantic notions of love, the “Fascination,” as she keeps whistling, of it all.

     Frankly, although I’ve almost always enjoyed Hepburn’s performances, I’ve never quite comprehended why she cinematically was attracted almost always to older men or, as in the example of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to a gigolo stand-in for the gay Capote himself. Every man she met, almost throughout her movie career, was either a liar, a fool, a cheat, or an abuser, as well as having one foot in the grave. I suppose this was to emphasize her endless vulnerability. But it might have been nice, once in a while, to imagine the gamin actually encountering a man of her own personality and age!

     But all’s well that ends well, I suppose, as Flannagan, finally realizing that this time he has caught only “a little fish,” attempts, in good conscience, to abandon her, before, witnessing her sad-sack attempt to hide her tears, he sweeps her up into a culmination of the romantic desire she has all along sought. In the American version, the studios demanded, in the name of decency, that her father reveal, in the final frame, that the couple were now married and living in New York.  How unhappy, we can only imagine, she must now be in that Manhattan apartment married to the no-longer very dashing, slow-minded Mr. Flannagan! And how very much annoyed he must now be with a woman who once entertained him so pleasingly with her outrageous lies. Moralistic endings aside—even the director complained about Chevalier’s attached announcement—we can only hope that Ariane got only as far as Le Havre before turning back.

Minneapolis, November 7, 2013


  1. I was not enamored with this film, mainly because I felt, as you do, that Cooper was horribly miscast, but I LOVED Hepburn here and felt that she was extraordinary and really turned in a star making performance.

  2. Watched this for the first time. Knowing Billy Wilder's first choice was Cary Grant, I can't help myself but think that Frank Flannagan was the kind of "Cary Grant" role that only Cary Grant can play so well.