22 August 2006

100 films: Un homme et une femme

a man and a woman

starring: Anouk Aimée, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Pierre Barouh, and Valérie Lagrange
written by: Pierre Uytterhoeven & Claude Lelouch
directed by: Claude Lelouch
NR, 102 min, 1966, France

A chance encounter leads to a tentative romance in Claude Lelouch's Academy Award winning[1] Un homme et une femme, a sublime exploration of a love between two people with enough emotional baggage and personal demons to inhibit their chances at happiness. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Jean-Louis Duroc, a semi-famous race car driver, who by chance meets Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimée) at the Deauville boarding school both of their children attend, and offers her a ride back to Paris. They are each single parents coping with the tragic deaths of their spouses, although in their initial meeting, Anne gives the impression that her husband (Pierre Barouh)--a movie stunt man--is still very much alive.

Jean-Louis arrives at the truth quickly enough to offer Anne a ride back to Deauville the following weekend, where they and the children go on a double date of dinner and a boat ride. Thus begins the process by which they fall in love, slowly and organically, through held gazes and lingering hands. And whereas many films would make the jump from the dinner table to the bedroom, Lelouch expands on the flirtation, delaying the payoff and layering the relationship with his character's backstories, the means by which they've come to this place. He shows us the untimely death of Anne's husband and the suicide of Jean-Louis' wife after a particularly gruesome crash, but more importantly he shows us a long montage of Anne and her husband completely and totally in love, accompanied by the enchanting sounds of Barouh singing "Samba Saravan"[2]. At first it seems like an indulgent flourish by Lelouch that takes the audience away from the romance on screen by showing in detail a past love, but it later gains more resonance as Jean-Louis and Anne grow increasingly closer and Anne attempts to rationalize this move away from a man she loved so dearly, even if he is long dead.

All this culminates in the famous scene where after Jean-Louis successfully completes the grueling Monte Carlo Rally, Anne telegraphs him from Paris to tell him, finally, that she loves him. Without delay, Jean-Louis jumps back in the same car he's driven across Europe and speeds toward Paris, telling himself that when a woman sends a telegraph like that, you go to her no matter what, even if that means driving thousands of miles without rest. He reaches her, and they make love for the first time, but as they are, Lelouch cuts to images of Anne and her husband, indicating that while her body is with Jean-Louis, her mind is still devoted to someone else. She's even still wearing his ring. Eventually, Jean-Louis figures out that he's effectively making love by himself and they go their separate ways. It is at the same time bittersweet and beautiful.

The story of Un homme et une femme is an endlessly fascinating one, made all the more interesting by Claude Lelouch's narrative choices. At numerous points, he eschews dialogue in favor of flashbacks, montages, music, and race commentary. This accomplishes several goals (in addition to making the film more financially feasible). It allows the audience to more easily project themselves into the characters, as an image of two people talking with music replacing the dialogue draws us into the interaction between the characters, rather than distracting us by what they're saying. We naturally assume that what they're saying to each other is similar to what we would say in that situation. As a result, we become more invested in the relationship. It also gives the film the feel of a fairy tale romance, thanks in large part to the enchanting score of Francis Lai and Baden Powell. Take, for example, the scene at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club where Jean-Louis receives the telegraph. Lelouch puts a camera on a balcony and films it in an uninterrupted long shot as Jean-Louis reads the message, excuses himself from the table, and leaves the ballroom. We hear none of this, but it's clear enough that's what he's doing. Most directors would have either cut to closer shots and given us the dialogue or eliminated the scene altogether, but neither choice would have been as effective. It's a vital part of Jean-Louis' character arc that he leave immediately, and the uninterrupted shots convey that perfectly, but it's also unnecessary that we hear what he says. In fact, it's better that we don't. Lelouch's choice is a perfect balance.

The more celebrated choice of Un homme et une femme is the mixture of scenes shot in color with those shot in black and white. Much has been written about what Lelouch meant to convey with this device, whether the black and white serves as quotation marks or the color is meant to be a somewhat different version of reality or some such thing. The answer, however, is almost disappointingly simple. The budget for Un homme et une femme was not large enough to film the entire thing in color, but the potentially lucrative American market required color and an investor was willing to supply more money to the project if the film could play the American market. So, Lelouch filmed his interiors in black and white, as planned, and used color for the exteriors. The compromise is a practical one that people have been reading into since the film was released, and may have been a factor in Lelouch's Best Director nomination. It'll surprise no one to hear that the mixture has influenced many a filmmaker since, but had the project been able to raise more funds, it wouldn't have even existed. And for that, we're all thankful.

[1] Winner of Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Anouk Aimée) and Best Director.

[2] The music itself is composed by Baden Powell, with lyrics by Vinicius de Morais. I haven't a clue who either of them are, and I don't care enough to look it up.


johanna said...

this sounds depressing.

that may just be the altitude out here speaking. hard to breathe, always tired. the only good thing about that is it gives me a bit of extra gravity as i interview people. what they don't realize is that i'm trying not to slump over my camera and call it a day.

i've been making progress, though, and you can expect some kind of write-up on the experience when i get back...although i haven't much idea whether you care about environmental concerns or not.

levi said...

if her mind was on her former husband, why'd she telegraph the guy and make him drive so far? "whoops, nevermind."

lucas said...


if there's one thing i know in this world, it's that i'll never understand women

Thom said...

"if there's one thing i know in this world, it's that i'll never understand women"

Maybe that's why we invented cinema: to share our complete lack of understanding with each other? lol

lucas said...


i think you may be on to something.

i wonder if there's a blog-a-thon theme there? hmm...

levi said...

a blog-o-thon: "films that demonstrate the sexes complete lack of understanding of each other"

lucas said...


that title is a bit...um...long. usually it's something like the "Avant-Garde Blog-a-Thon"

Peter Pan said...

Un des plus beaux film d'amour ! ;))