Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman from 1966 was one of those rare films that pleased audiences and critics alike. The film nabbed the Palme d’Or and two Oscars while playing to crowded theaters worldwide. And over the years it has remained a popular property, generating over 6 million dollars in home video rentals. These days, film scholars consider Lelouch something of a lightweight, never awarding him the gravitas of Truffaut or Godard, his nouvelle vague brethren. But A Man and a Woman was a highly influential movie, especially to Hollywood filmmakers who admired its near perfect balance of entertainment and innovation.
While generically described as a romantic drama, A Man and a Woman reduces the genre to a study of specific moments in the formation of a love affair. The film deals more with the mental and emotional processes of falling in love than actually being in love. The couple in question, champion race car driver Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and script supervisor Anne (Anouk Aimèe) spend relatively little time together onscreen - just a few Sunday afternoons - yet memories of these brief reveries fill their weekdays like a ghostly presence. The couple is only separate on the physical plane, as new passions fill their damaged souls.
Lelouch’s stylish direction, complete with memory sequences, color shifting and music- cued montages, speaks a language that has become standard, some could say trite, filmmaker vocabulary. But here Lelouch wields the tools with skill and assurance, supporting and deepening the film’s existential air. Whenever the film threatens to become a bit too precious, Lelouch cleverly ups the ante with exciting scenes from the race track, including a harrowing nighttime sequence depicting the Monte Carlo Rally. But these are not mere empty thrills, for Jean-Louis and Anne will find the twisting course of love an even more perilous navigation.
In a rarity for a 1966 production, today finds all the principles alive, well and still productive. Lelouch has created an extensive filmography, although he has yet to match A Man and a Woman’s commercial success. Composer Francis Lai, whose portfolio contains a number of hit themes - Love Story among them - is scoring Lelouch’s new film Les chemins de l'orgueil currently in production. Anouk Aimèe’s career has found new traction as a character actress, lending her elegant air to several recent French comedies. And Jean-Louis Tringinant, having won accolades at Cannes last month for his work in Haneke’s Amor is poised for a new round of international success.
Its influence extending to such iconic films as Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and countless music videos of the 1980’s and 90’s, A Man and a Woman continues to be relevant and rewarding. Neither nihilist nor fluffy, the film ultimately resolves with an honest appraisal of love’s dangers, and the courage required by lovers to venture on. Jean-Louis and Anne may not be a match made in heaven, but within the realm of flawed humanity they could do a lot worse.