A Man and a Woman November 26, 2016
Only a single scene in Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (1966) represents every daydream its ambitious title elicits, and that scene comes in the middle of the film during one of its most — maybe even its most — organic, honest sequences. In it, the eponymous, thirty-something lovers, Anne (Anouk Aimée) and Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), are having dinner on a cool weekend evening with their children. In truth would they rather be enjoying each other’s company without the constraints inadvertently put on them by their offspring, but since they’re the parents of tots that go to the same boarding school, spontaneity is something that also has to include their familial responsibility. Anne loves her daughter, and Jean-Louis loves his son, too much, anyway, to choose a love interest wholeheartedly over a child.
The scene is uncomfortable and riddled with hesitation. As both are recently widowed, neither Anne nor Jean-Louis much wants to outrightly admit that they’re moving on with their lives. They’re even too scared to sit across from each other; eye contact would invite the other in. Perhaps their kids are crutches of sorts, acting as fixtures to get in the way of an expeditious spark.
But while the scene begins with that uncertain tension, it inevitably makes way for a more deepened affinity, so much so that the occasional interruption from one of their children does little to deter Anne and Jean-Louis’s sudden ability to lose themselves in someone else. That warm, deep-seated intimacy is so tangible it wouldn’t be so melodramatic to compare it to the palpable relationship found through Jesse and Céline in Richard Linklater’s immortal Before … trilogy (1995-2013).
But, alas, Lelouch is a filmmaker not confident enough in his storyline nor his actors to let them speak for themselves. Like 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, an otherwise gorgeous tragic drama whose immense power over its audience proved to be greatly obstructed by director John Schlesinger’s manic stylistic delivery, A Man and a Woman is so smothered by its frenetic gloss that we oftentimes yearn for the film that it was during that above mentioned scene. (Which was naturalistic and poetic and subtly erotic.)
And yet Lelouch seems to be less concerned with his central story and more with his presentation, which is the definition of much. The cinematography switches back and forth in its being lensed in color, cobalt black-and-white, and glowing sepia, with the score constant and overbearing, the editing wearing the scent of an amateur who wants to be Jean-Luc Godard but always ends up more closely resembling slightly more talented Jesús Franco.
I can appreciate hyperstylization as much as the next person — my adoration of the giallo movement of the 1970s and peak Tarantino serving as my evidence — but when visual flamboyance is coating a clear lack of ideas, unavoidable is the eventual blatant disregard for anything a film has to offer. It’s no different for A Man and a Woman; there comes a point during which we’ve decided that spotlighted is not a three-dimensional, immediate relationship but a series of sensual encounters enacted by substantially beautiful people, threaded together by style that sooner or later begins to stop flying.
And that’s especially painful, considering how well Aimée and Trintignant manage to concoct a believable relationship out of meager substantiveness. Aimée (La Dolce Vita, Lola), among the most alluring actresses to have made their presence known on the silver screen, is a bewitching, lithe connoisseur of the feminine mystique that only grows in her cinematic eternality as the years pass by; the ‘60s ennui she brings to A Man and a Woman makes Lelouch’s torrent of imagery bear some sort of urgency. Trintignant, an underappreciated actor overshadowed by the likes of Marcello Mastroianni and Alain Delon, is wistfully nuanced as a man putting on a front of impenetrable masculinity as a way to hide the damage done by his wife’s sudden death.
We long to see a Before … style piece in response to the distinctive characterizations Aimée and Trintignant provide, but in place is a style over substance sign of the times that we wish were more than it was. Some of it is indelible, but most is insufferable, and when I get my cinematic romance I like it served straight, not zippy. If only Lelouch felt the same way — then we’d have a magnum opus and not a pre-MTV music video. C