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Claude Lelouch’s slushy romantic classic A Man and a Woman is one of the most successful, beloved and much-mocked French films of all time. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1966, followed by Academy Awards for screenplay and best foreign-language film, plus an armful of other big prizes. Now 81, Lelouch returned to Cannes on Saturday for a starry gala premiere of his latest drama, The Best Years of a Life, which reunites the iconic stars of his most feted film, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimee, playing the same characters 53 years later.
An autumnal indulgence for director and cast alike, this wistful closing chapter has little chance of repeating the big splash made by A Man and a Woman. Even so, there is bittersweet humor and poignant insight here, plus a fine cast including Monica Bellucci in a brief cameo. Lelouch also deserves credit for coaxing the fragile 88-year-old Trintignant out of retirement for one last sunset project, just as Michael Haneke did before him with his thematically similar but far bleaker Amour. Enduring affection for the two stars, and for the original film, should give The Best Years of a Life solid commercial appeal inside France and possible traction beyond, especially among nostalgic older viewers.
By reuniting these immortal screen lovers after half a century, the feature makes the 35-year hiatus between Blade Runner movies look like a mere blip. Oddly, this new film’s plot conveniently overlooks Lelouch’s previous inferior sequel, A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later, which sank without trace in 1986. He appears to have forgotten that career misfire, and probably hopes audiences have too.
His new film opens with a bravura long zoom onto the anxious, haunted face of Jean-Louis Duroc (Trintignant). Once a devilishly handsome, womanizing race-car driver, Jean-Louis is now a fading shadow of his younger self, increasingly cranky and confused as he drifts into dementia at an assisted living facility. Meanwhile, his long-lost love Anne Gauthier (Aimee) remains youthful and active, running a small shop in a picturesque Normandy town with grown-up children and grandchildren buzzing around her.
One day, out of the blue, Jean-Louis’ grown-up son Antoine (Antoine Sire, reprising his childhood role) calls on Anne and asks her to visit his father in the home, partly for therapeutic reasons. “You’re his best memory,” Antoine says ruefully. Her first hesitant meeting with Jean-Louis is awkward. Initially he doesn’t recognize her, but these old flames gradually flicker back into life, musing on past mistakes, love and sex, death and poetry. Regrets? They’ve had a few.
As shared memories resurface, Lelouch splices generous passages from the original film into this one, including an inevitable reprise for Francis Lai’s immortal, softy cooing theme tune. In scenes that blur dream, memory and reality, Anne and Jean-Louis re-create classic images from the 1966 film, revisiting the beach at Deauville and the hotel room where their affair began. Jean-Louis’ white Ford Mustang race car even reappears, albeit as a phantom echo in his muddled mind.
The Best Years of a Life is unashamedly sentimental, overly whimsical and almost absurdly French at times. Lelouch’s uncritical fondness for Jean-Louis, who is thronged by adoring female admirers despite his lewd jokes and creepy attempts to seduce the young nurses in his care home, feels awkwardly off-key in the #MeToo era. The director’s abundant use of syrupy ballads, which ooze from every corner of this film, also exceeds all Geneva conventions on schmaltzy excess.
And yet, and yet, and yet — seeing these two French screen legends together again, probably for the last time, still creates an almost tangible chemical fizz. Even at 87, Aimee remains a magnificent human sculpture, while Trintignant tugs the heartstrings as a once-beautiful man sunk into soulful ruin. Whatever the slight story being played out onscreen, The Best Years of a Life strikes a deeper emotional chord because it is really more concerned with the looming mortality of its stars, its director and even its audience than with the fate of its fictional characters.
Lelouch shot the film in a lean 13 days. Perhaps because of time and budget restrictions, this flatly filmed sequel falls far short of the original’s freewheeling Nouvelle Vague vivacity. But whatever his diminished powers, the veteran director still hits occasional sublime grace notes. He outdoes himself here with a lengthy sequence that layers images from both films over archival 1970s footage of a car racing across Paris in the early morning, a dreamy piece of Proustian poetry that feels as fresh and experimental as anything screened in Cannes this year.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Les Films 13, Davis Films, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Anouk Aimee, Souad Amidou, Antoine Sire, Marianne Denicourt, Monica Bellucci
Director: Claude Lelouch
Screenwriters: Claude Lelouch, Valerie Perrin
Producers: Samuel Hadida, Victor Hadida, Claude Lelouch
Cinematographer: Robert Alazraki
Editor: Stephane Mazalaigue
Music: Francis Lai, Calogero, Nicole Croisille
Sales company: Other Angle Pictures, Paris
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