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Lelouch revisits his big winner

``A Man and a Woman'' arrived on screen just 20 years ago and was an instant hit. True, many critics scoffed at it, calling it shallow and mindless and manipulative. But audiences warmed quickly to its characters -- an auto racer and a ``script girl'' on a movie set -- and the love affair that struggled to grow from their relationship.

I've always sympathized with both camps. Yes, the movie is shallow and silly and all that. But its images are colorful, its editing is snappy, and Francis Lai's music score deserves its near-legendary status. I also like the way its characters find meaning and purpose in their jobs as well as in their private lives. For most filmmakers, except a few like the late Fran,cois Truffaut, everyday work hardly seems to exist, and it was refreshing to see director Claude Lelouch treat it as a significant part of life.

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By contrast, nearly all of Lelouch's other films have left me cold, bored, or downright irritated. As his experience has grown, so have his mannerisms and pretensions. Telling a plain, old-fashioned story was evidently beneath his dignity after the success of ``A Man and a Woman,'' and his later pictures tended to be self-indulgent or pompous or both.

I had no idea, therefore, how ``A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later'' would strike me. Would this sequel mark a return to Lelouch's earlier, more winning style? Or would it escalate his tricky-tacky technique to heights more precarious than ever?

I'm afraid the news isn't good. Lelouch douses every scene of ``20 Years Later'' with so many visual tics and twitches that the story almost drowns.

And what a story! The man now organizes races instead of driving in them, and the woman is a big-time movie producer. She decides to make a picture about their long-ago romance, which gives Lelouch an opening for endless film-within-a-film horseplay. The other main character runs into jealousy problems with his fianc'ee and ends up parching to death (almost) in the middle of a desert.

Sound contrived? That's putting it kindly. And matters aren't helped by Lelouch's wild and woolly camera style, which zooms and hops and wiggles so much you have to grab your seat to keep your balance.

Lai's original 1966 music still sounds gorgeous, and on the too-few occasions when it recurs on the soundtrack, it sweeps everything before it. Some good performers, including ``Man and Woman'' veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aim'ee, also do their professional best under the circumstances. But a mere movie star doesn't have much of a chance when the camera itself is a shameless ham.

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