‘A Love Story’ (‘Un Amour’): Film Review

A poignant real-life tale of one couple's entente cordiale

Producer-director Richard Copans tells the story of his Franco-American origins

Between Jerry Lewis, Maurice Chevalier, Bill O’Reilly and freedom fries, the United States and France have carried on a love-hate relationship that’s lasted more than two centuries now. One particularly inspiring case of the former is examined with beaucoup affection in A Love Story (Un Amour), producer-director Richard Copans’ documentary on how his American father and French mother came together at a time when the world was coming apart, holding on through thick and thin as war engulfed Europe and they found themselves separated by an ocean.

A combination of archive photos, letters, sound recordings and present-day interviews, with dueling voiceovers providing each character’s point of view, this nonfictional narrative offers up a moving and historically apt follow-up to Copans’ 2003 film, Racines, which examined the filmmaker’s roots in rural France and Eastern Europe. But its veritable tale of Franco-American passion makes it a stand-alone work that could find takers in fests and select art houses following a late March release in Gaul.

Copans is more known at home as a producer than as a director, heading up the Paris-based company Les Films d’ici, whose doc-heavy catalog includes works by Robert Kramer, Nicolas Philibert, Claire Simon and Luc Moullet. He first got behind the camera for the feature-length Racines, and is picking up the plot a decade later with a script — co-written with novelist-actress Marie Nimier — that jumps between the 1930s and 1940s and the present to faithfully re-create his parents’ story.

His father, Simon “Sim” Copans, first came to Paris as an exchange student from Brown, studying at the Sorbonne and living nearby on the rue Soufflot, where he witnessed the funeral of the assassinated president Paul Doumer in 1931. Eight years later, Simon was back in France on a group visit to Chartres Cathedral when he crossed paths with Lucienne, a young woman from the eastern city of Soissons.

The two soon hit it off with their shared love of literature and left-wing politics, both of them ardent Republican supporters during the Spanish Civil War. Simon, who was a member of the Youth Communist League along with activists like Harry Foner — shown in the film singing his witty ballad “Love in the YCL” — wanted to enlist, but instead he and Lucienne became godparents to children orphaned by the conflict.

When Germany invaded Poland, Simon convinced his girlfriend to marry on the fly, allowing her to flee with him to the U.S. But there was one hitch: not only was he Jewish and she Catholic, but also Lucienne was fervently opposed to the idea of marriage, which she saw as an archaic institution belonging to her parents' generation.

Simon nonetheless pleaded until Lucienne gave in, and after a shotgun wedding in Paris they moved to Manhattan, where the groom’s family set up a more traditional ceremony. These sequences allow for some amusing anecdotes about what it was like for a French country girl to find herself among a bunch of Yiddish-speaking New Yawkers, with Rabbi Marcia Rappaport commenting on how traditional Jewish customs have evolved over the last century, granting more autonomy to women.

The lovebirds spent nearly two years apart when Simon was drafted into an army propaganda squad, driving around Normandy to give news about Allied victories and playing American jazz records for the recently liberated population. The letters he wrote to Lucienne at that time form the backbone of A Love Story’s narrative, while his wife’s earnest replies are read aloud by Gallic actress Dominique Blanc.  Other texts are recited by contemporary characters whom Copans encounters as he retraces his parents’ long journey, the future and the present blending into a single whole.

Even if the film is more of a personal exercise than an anthropological one, the director manages to frame his origin story within the greater context of world history, revealing how individual trajectories are shaped by events beyond anyone’s control. At best one can try to cope with the bad times, which is what Copans’ parents did until they were reunited and eventually settled in Paris. There, Simon would continue broadcasting jazz on French public radio, and his American-accented voice would spark other memories — including that of writer Georges Perec, who immortalized the shows of “Sim” Copans in his famous text, Je me souviens. The affair continues.

Production company: Les Films d’ici
Director: Richard Copans
Screenwriters: Marie Nimier, Richard Copans
Producers: Serge Lalou, Richard Copans
Executive producer: Anne Cohen-Solal
Director of photography: Richard Copans
Editor: Sylvain Copans
Composers: Michel Portal, Vincent Peirani
International sales: Les Films d’ici

No rating, 93 minutes