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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: A Man and a Woman

* * * 1/2

Winner: Best Foreign Language Film, 1966

Director: Claude Lelouche
Starring: Anouk Aimee, Jean-Louis Trintignant

It’s rare to find a simpler story. There is a man, there is a woman, they fall in love, but the relationship is complicated by the fact that the timing is all wrong. That’s pretty much it, which doesn’t sound like much but Claude Lelouche’s film is more resonant than most films in which the lovers scale a mountain of obstacles and contrivance to get together. With great performances from Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Tringignant and an instantly recognizable score by Francis Lai, A Man and a Woman is a film that stands the test of time.

The man and the woman are Anne and Jean-Louis and they meet through their children, who attend the same school. Anne is a script supervisor whose husband was a stuntman and was killed in an accident on set. Jean-Louis is a racecar driver whose wife committed suicide when it looked as if he might not survive a crash during a race. Anne and Jean-Louis are attracted to each other but hesitant to get involved because each is still grieving the loss of their respective spouse. This grief, however, becomes something that they inevitably bond over and soon the time they spend together is no longer about their children, but about themselves and the feelings that they’ve developed for each other.

One of the strongest things about this film is the way that this relationship progresses in such a realistic way. Anne and Jean-Louis become swept away with the idea of being together, with the romantic notion of running off with each other and with combining their fractured families into one and hopefully healing themselves in the process. They do, in fact, run away together but when the moment comes, Anne finds that she can’t go through with it. The loss of her husband is still too fresh for her and she sadly explains to Jean-Louis that while she knows that her husband is dead, he’s not yet dead to her. She and Jean-Louis then go their separate ways, but the feelings that have started to grow are still there and maybe, just maybe, they can find a way to make it work.

Aside from its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, A Man and a Woman was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actress. Aimee's performance in the film is really affecting, particularly in that scene when Anne explains to Jean-Louis that she's just not ready to move on yet. It's a quiet performance, there are never any histrionics or over the top dramatics, but it reaches deep and really shows the complexities and the impossibilities of Anne's emotions. I haven't had a chance to see many of Aimee's performances, but in those films of hers that I have seen, she never fails to draw me in. She just disappears so completely into her characters and makes them so real - I can't believe she wasn't a bigger star.

As a director, Lelouche makes some interesting choices. The film alternates between being shot in black and white, full color, and the sepia tones that immediately evoke feelings of nostalgia. The changes usually occur when the film switches from a conversation in the present day to one of the characters remembering something from the past. It's a visual cue for the audience to mentally shift gears and I don't know that it's entirely necessary, but it does give the film a more interesting texture. I'm ultimately pretty ambivalent about this particular choice, finding that it didn't really enhance the story for me but that it didn't take anything away from the story either. What does take away from the story, at least a little bit, is the score. I'm not sure how it played in 1966 but here and now it's immediately recognizable as elevator music (it's that one that goes "da da da da-da-da-da-da da-da-da-da-da" over and again). It's not bad, but it kind of creates an odd mood to the film.

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