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TCM Imports - June 2012
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,A Man and a Woman

A Man and a Woman

When French filmmaker Claude Lelouch's A Man and a Woman showed up in American cinemas in the summer of 1966, its success was unprecedented and extraordinary. The picture had won the Grand Prize at Cannes earlier that year, but then as now, that kind of honor doesn't necessarily guarantee commercial success. A Man and a Woman did extremely well in its native country, but its popularity in America, in particular - among a public that was often suspicious of foreign films -- was phenomenal. The picture played for more than a year in several large American cities (in Los Angeles, it remained on screens for more than two years) and won two Academy Awards, for Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Film. It's not a particularly complex or deep film - in fact, its simple title sums up its story line and its central theme pretty well. Yet it's a superb example of how a film that may not be particularly "great" can capture the popular imagination and linger in the memory for years. Even Bosley Crowther, the notoriously stuffy New York Times film critic, fell for it. Lelouch, he wrote, "has a rare skill at photographing clichés so that they sparkle and glow with poetry and at generating a sense of inspiration in behavior that is wholly trivial."

Crowther may have been damning the movie with faint praise, but he does capture how ridiculously compelling it is. Anouk Aimée is Anne, a Parisian woman who, while visiting her young daughter at a boarding school in Deauville, meets another parent, Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The two learn about each other's lives gradually over the course of several school visits, their backstories revealed in moody flashbacks instead of dialogue: Because we see their lives unfold in images rather than in words, it's as if we're watching them learn to read each other's minds. We learn about Anne's husband, a stuntman named Pierre (Pierre Barouh), a sturdy charmer who's as adept at crooning samba as he is at taking a tumble. Jean-Louis is a race-car test driver - we see him conferring with mechanics and zipping into his gear before slipping behind the wheel to begin an afternoon's work at what is possibly the coolest job in the universe. But later we also learn, through more of these impressionistic flashback interludes, that both Anne and Jean-Louis have shouldered their share of heartbreak. Their tentative romance is their way of climbing back toward life, complete with all the attendant false starts and apprehensiveness.

A Man and a Woman, for all its urbane polish, wasn't a costly film. The picture had an initial budget of $100,000 - a small sum even at the time -- but it was difficult for Lelouch to raise even that much. Lelouch - who had gotten his start making Scopitones, short films set to pop tunes that were viewed in a jukebox outfitted with a small movie screen - had recently released a flop, Les Grands Moments (1965), and it wasn't easy to find funding for another movie. Somehow, he managed to pull together enough money to make A Man and a Woman, partly thanks to a payout from the French government. And even as he was shooting the film, he sold American distribution rights to Allied Artists, netting him another $40,000. The film was shot in three weeks with a very small crew, largely on location. Aimée recalled, "Jean-Louis and I not only did our own makeup and attended to our own wardrobe but we also helped with the lights. We had no sets. For a scene on the train from Deauville to Paris, Lelouch and I actually took the train to Paris and he filmed en route." She also noted that the crew traveled from location to location throughout France in just two automobiles, and everyone worked on Saturdays and Sundays to cut costs.

That kind of filmmaking can either lend spontaneity to a picture or turn it into a mess, but A Man and a Woman easily landed on the side of freshness and believability. Lelouch used documentary filmmaking techniques, often availing himself of natural light, and shot sections of the film with a hand-held camera, a device that's overused today but was still a novelty in fiction filmmaking in 1965. He also demanded that his actors think on their feet; instead of giving them a script, he provided them with bare-bones information about the action and dialogue and then left it to them to fill in the blanks. The approach helps free the actors from their inhibitions - and, maybe, from their egos. "They [the actors] discover the film every day as it is being shot," Lelouch has said. "This doesn't give them a chance to do their number, to be actors. They remain human beings who are afraid, let's say, of what happens to them."

The allure of A Man and a Woman can't be broken down into discrete elements, but it's easy enough to identify certain touch points that make it work. There's Aimee's marble-carved elegance, and Trintignant's half-shy, half-confident boyish demeanor. And there's an elemental beauty to certain aspects of the story: After winning the Monte Carlo Rally and receiving a telegram from Anne saying, "Bravo. I love you," Jean Louis drops everything and drives overnight from Monte Carlo to Paris just to see her. (Not finding her in Paris, he tracks her to Deauville, where she's visiting the children.) The overnight drive, an impulsive act usually carried out only in the flush of first love, might be a cliché, but Lelouch handles it both tenderly and with a marked degree of animal energy: He captures that slender flash of light at the beginning of an affair when longing is everything.

But one of the most indelible components of A Man and a Woman is Francis Lai's damnably hummable theme song, a melody that moves forward first in staccato fits and starts (a lot like Anne and Jean-Louis' relationship) and then slides into a kind of irresistible swoon. It's likely that once you've heard this melody, it lodges in some corner of your brain forever, though it's worth noting that Lai - who was in his early thirties when he wrote this music - would just a few years later go on to create another inerasable totem, the theme from Love Story (1970). The music for Love Story won Lai an Academy Award, but the theme from A Man and a Woman surely has more sentimental value among certain moviegoers. For many Americans of a certain age, A Man and a Woman was a first encounter with "foreign" cinema. It's a picture that feels daring and risky artistically, yet is entirely accessible on emotional terms.

Producer: Claude Lelouch (uncredited)
Director: Claude Lelouch
Screenplay: Pierre Uytterhoeven; Claude Lelouch (uncredited)
Cinematography: Claude Lelouch
Music: Francis Lai
Film Editing: Claude Barrois
Cast: Anouk Aimee (Anne Gauthier), Jean Louis Trintignant (Jean-Louis Duroc), Pierre Barouh (Pierre Gautier), Valerie Lagrange (Valerie Duroc), Antoine (Antoine Duroc), Souad (Francoise Gauthier), Henri Chemin (Jean-Louis' Codriver), Yane Barry (Mistress of Jean-Louis), Paul Le Person (Garage Man), Simone Paris (Head Mistress).
BW & C-102m.

by Stephanie Zacharek

Sources:
New York Times
Peter Lev, Claude Lelouch, Film Director, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
IMDB VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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