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CLAUDE LELOUCH: THE BEST YEARS OF A LIFE/LES PLUS BELLES ANNÉES D'UNE VIE (2019 - RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA)

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JEAN-LOUIS TRINTIGNANT, ANOUK AIMÉE IN LES PLUS BELLES ANNÉES D'UNE VIE


Long-delayed sequel

Way back in 1966, 54 years ago, Claude Lelouch's A Man and a Woman projected the simple formula that title signals into one of the biggest French hits in America and worldwide and at home (Cannes Palme d'Or, multiple Césars). It was easy, almost more like a music video, and Lelouch had started off working on short films made for TV. And with that datada-dada-dada-datada-dada earwig theme by Francis Lai. The actors were class all the way, the glamorous Anouk Aimée and the brilliant Jean-Louis Trintignant. They're all three in their eighties now. Lelouch is the youngster, at 82; Trintignant is 89 and Aimée, though you can hardly believe it (she's still beautiful) is 87. So prepare for the sequel.

The new plot line is realistic in its starting point, putting Trintignant in a home with dementia unable to remember his successes as a racing car driver, his Man and a Woman gig. Anne (Aimée) has long retired from producing films and runs a fabric shop in Normandy. It's Jean-Louis's son (Antoine Sire) who stirs the sleepy pot by bringing Anne to the home to visit Jean-Louis, to jog his father's dim memory to recall that long-ago, joyous affair. Jean-Louis, as is Trintignant usually in films, is feisty and difficult. But both are teasing and playful.

I found myself wondering at the long first dialogue between them, out on the lawn where the aging Jean-Louis likes to sit alone by himself and recite poetry and muse on his memories - memories particularly of that time when he lived Anne. How did they remember this long exchange, which hardly makes any sense at times, since it keeps going back to zero when Jean-Louis forgets what's just been said. The script seeks to be a brooding, haunting, inspiring review of memories of a life. Or it's simply a review of Lelouch's greatest hit. The title points to a prosier and more plodding style than the original. And the images are less lustrous than its are, as flashback clips make only too clear.

For a while, there's a hint of Beckett, with a romantic gloss. Or Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad: Didn't I know you once? Why do you look familiar? You remind me of someone I once loved. And Anne makes it so much better because - and this too is romantic - she doesn't just doggedly insist she's the woman he once knew, but is cagey, instead. Gradually Jean-Louis starts to catch on and remember better, dreams of driving and eventually goes on drives with Anne, who likes this so much she keeps coming back for repeat visits. Jean-Louis starts functioning so well that the attractive woman director of the home, who says he's her pet ("though I should not say such things") begins to think maybe he is playing with his dementia, pretending it's worse than it is.

And so on. I found this fun, teasing and touching, and it is filled out by details about the grown-up daughter of Anne (Souad Amidou), a vet specialized in horses (cue pretty equine shots), and her and Jean-Louis' son's cute kids. And there are the flashbacks using clips from A Man and a Woman. But then you realize the material is thin, and Lelouch is doing things to fill it out, such as running his famous 1976 single take short film, C'Était un rendez-vous, of his high speed early morning race across Paris, which he spreads out by slicing it up between other shots, pretending that it was an exploit of Jean-Louis'. But this is cheating, and doesn't even work very well - though still, the sequences of the Anne/Jean-Louis present day drives somehow have a bit of the old magic, or at least a feel of being real, and taking us away from the monotony of the home and the flashback clips.

I admit it: I enjoyed a lot of this film, because of the layered effect, and Trintignant and Aimée. And in the clips, you remember that Aimée was astonishingly beautiful back then, and that helps explain her enduring beauty today, and that the hair that was so great, is still pretty great, and dyed to look the same color. "Why are you prettier than I am?" asks old Jean-Louis. And Anne answers, "Because I use more makeup."

This sequel that has been called "treacly," saccharine," and "corny," (was the original any different?) still has one thing going for it, the class of its two stars. We can be glad they're still around. But let's face it, the juice has gone out not just of the love story but of Lelouch's skill as a filmmaker, which never was quite of the first rank. Lelouch, obviously, and maybe we should be glad, because it's already been done, hasn't the guts to do a searing examination of love among the elderly as Michael Haneke did in his difficult but superb film starring Trintignant, Amour (NYFF 2012). That was about faithfulness to the end; this is about something less related to the long haul, remembering a romance, or trying to. But memory is an issue we all face as we age, a complicated one this film does something with. So cut it a little slack. And enjoy Trintignant's feisty edge, his razor grin, and Aimée's big eyes and swept back hair.

The Best Years of a Life/Les plus belles année d'une vie, 90 mins., debuted in Competition in May 2019 at Cannes; four other festivals, but it didn't make any big ones.. Its May French theatrical release was a moderate success (AlloCiné Spectators score 3.6, Critics 3.4 (68%)).

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema:
Saturday, March 7, 3:45pm (Q&A was originally planned with Claude Lelouch and Valérie Perrin but did not take place)

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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