Francis Lai & Claude Lelouch I: A Man & a Woman

February 24, 2011 | By

Anouk Aimee, deep in Yaba-Daba-Da land.

Since 1966, Francis Lai has been Claude Lelouch’s chief composer, and the two may well have broken the record for the longest professional association between a composer and a director.

The current film festival touring of Lelouch’s Ces amours-là / What Love May Bring (2010) marks the 44th year the two creative minds have worked together, so it’s appropriate their musical history is partially sampled in Silva Screen’s latest composer tribute, Francis Lai: The Essential Film Music Collection, featuring 20 themes composed and conducted by the composer.

In 1965, Claude Lelouch was utterly bummed out for making Une filles et des fusils / The Decadent Influence, a movie the director describes as being unwanted by critics and audiences alike. Being its writer, director and producer, he needed to rethink his next project as well as absorb the defeat of making a dud, because his production company was now in financial jeopardy.

Lelouch hopped in his car and simply drove – a tactic which he’d used in the past to clear his mind, sort out issues, and wait for inspiration to hit – and when he ended up on a beach at Deauville, he spotted a woman playing on the sand with a young son at 6am in the morning.

The oddity of such a normal event taking place at a ridiculous time sent his brain into motion, and he imagined a backstory of a busy mother having a small window of time for her child before heading back to the boarding school and leaving for work. With further writing, a script was hammered out, and the story garnered the interest of Jean-Louis-Trintignant, a popular actor whose father happened to be a professional race car driver.

When the actor and director discussed the dream actress who could play the character of Anne, Anouk Aimee came up as No. 1 – fortuitous for Lelouch, because Trintignant was friends with the striking actress.

Filmed on location on Deauville with a core production crew of 10 and using colour and black & white stock to keep the costs down, A Man and a Woman / Un home et une femme eventually did the film festival rounds, and garnered both awards and the attention of international audiences.

The film ultimately won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, and Lelouch and Lai were suddenly international names, and in spite of their lengthy careers, not to mention Lelouch’s prolific output, they’ve perhaps become marginalized over the past 10-20 years due to Lelouch’s eclectic, personal stories, and Lai being pigeoned as a composer of romantic schmaltz.

Mention Lai, and one thinks of the corkscrew ‘yaba-daba-da’ title theme from Man and a Woman, not to mention the syrupy Love Story (1970) theme which became a standard on easy listening radio for years.

Silva’s CD offers a sampling of his thematic work, but it’s not unfair to say Lai’s abilities for writing dramatic cues have been overshadowed by his gift for songs. Few of his albums were released in the U.S. after his peak hits, and even if one goes back to his 1966 soundtrack debut, the album itself falls short of the dramatic cues that made the film so affecting.

Lai’s style may also be unique to stories with lyrical character arcs and dynamic relationships, or intimate tales of men and women being emotionally and physically naked in ways American filmmakers would avoid due to a more conservative audience base, and the MPAA ratings.

So perhaps like those filled with biases and ignorance, I started to examine the pair’s work with the 1966 film and found much more than a melodramatic weepy. The skill of Lai’s writing is apparent, and Lelouch is part of the next group of French New Wave filmmakers who absorbed some of the rule breaking methods of the first generation, and expanded the possibilities of impressionistic editing and textured montages.

In terms of filmmaking techniques, Lelouch deserves to be studied as much as Godard and Truffaut, and it’s unfortunate the director remains largely marginalized, as though some historians wrote him off as a poseur or imitator, rather than a pioneer for the next wave of sixties filmmakers in Europe, and America.

A Man and a Woman has also stood the test of time because it’s atypical; the romance begins through an act of kindness, then friendship, a sharing of common life experiences, and it stays in a holding pattern as two adults play careful for the benefit of their children. Then admitted secrets expose common vulnerabilities, and the multi-part ending is filled with potent subtext, which is why the final scene compelled audiences to add their own conclusion or resolution to the couple’s next step.

Lelouch, for whatever reason, decided he needed to explore their lives, but rather than examine the intervening years between 1966-1986, he needle-dropped his curiosity in 1986, initially bringing the two former lovers together before separating them again.

As much as he may have wanted to avoid, his sequel – A Man and Woman: 20 Years Later – was a classic boy reunites with girl, gets girl, loses girl, and reunites again for better or worse – and it ultimately feels like an exercise with earnest intentions gone semi-clichéd.

As I stated at the end of the review for the 1966 film, Warner Home Video needs to revisit both films as a double-billed Blu-ray special edition. With the exception of the sequel, new extras aren’t required (well, maybe an interview with Francis Lai is due).

Why the studio chose to release the sequel only in Europe in 2003 is a mystery, unless WHV felt there was no North America interest in Lelouch, which is nonsense. The sequel recently debuted in Region 1 land as part of the Warner Archives series, but having seen the film, its incredible visuals – much like the cinematography in the original film – scream for a HD release.

See, there are French speaking folks in Canada, and there are aficionados of Lelouch in North America, so there’s no reason why a BR edition isn’t possible, unless it’s that current dilemma of shrinking demand for physical media; if that’s the case, then let the Europeans follow through with a region-free BR double-bill, because I’m sure a good chunk of French film fans would be delighted with any Lelouch film in HD.

In spite of its inherent flaws and weaknesses, the sequel is visually stunning, and I can imagine how much better it would play on a big home theatre screen.

In any event, uploaded is a review of the aforementioned Silva Screen CD [M], plus the original LP [M] of A Man and a Woman, plus the film [M] (released by Warner Home Video in a nice special edition), plus the sequel [M] (released in Italy via WHV’s Italian arm on a gorgeous DVD, albeit lacking English subtitles).

Both films comprise one of the few adult-themed fairy tale romances about the longing between two adults who should’ve given in to instinct instead of fear and ghost emotions from prior loves. If Lelouch’s ’66 film is stripped of its style and music, what’s left is a simple but compelling drama, and that’s why A Man and a Woman is so affecting 44 years since its theatrical release.

It’s just that good.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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