A Look Back at the Cannes Palme D’Or Winners from the 60s: ‘A Man and a Woman’

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A Man and a Woman (Un homme et une femme)
Written by Pierre Uytterhoeven
Directed by Claude Lelouch
France, 1966

In a driving scene roughly thirty minutes into A Man and a Woman, the host on a station playing from the car radio says, “I can tell you right away that the weather forecast is rainy. There’ll be rain all over France.” He’s certainly not wrong, as Claude Lelouch’s Cannes prize-winner might be the drizzliest film ever made, with light rain, or at least overcast skies, pervading as backdrop for most of its exterior scenes; even those without have either snow or the dimming light of dusk to encourage its characters to bundle up. It’s a film where the warmth of an emerging romance happens amid perpetual chill – Baby, It’s Cold Outside was apparently not a working title.

A widowed man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and a widowed woman (Anouk Aimée) meet one Sunday evening when dropping off their respective children at a boarding school after a weekend outing. He gives her a ride home when she misses her train, and they slowly get to know each other as he drives her back and forth from Deauville to Paris during subsequent weekends with the children. Despite apparent attraction, they remain guarded, and speak of their respective former spouses as though they are still alive. She works in films and her stuntman husband died in an accident on set. He is a racing car driver, and his wife committed suicide not long after hearing he might be a goner after a car crash.

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As they get to know each other, the attraction grows and they each make small, calculated, cautious moves to progress their relationship. The developments all feel organic, though thanks to the flourishes of the cinematography, favouring of flashbacks and montages, and an admittedly schmaltzy-at-times score by Francis Lai and Baden Powell, the tale has a propulsive energy to it and the sheen of a more fairy tale romance in some of its sentimental touches, particularly the very last scene. I don’t mean to suggest this as a detriment, though I know many less keen on this film would.

Acting as his own cinematographer, Lelouch deploys a lot of stylistic tics, notably those from the French New Wave and even Orson Welles, some of which admittedly don’t seem to gel with the subject matter at hand in given scenes. What separates his bag of tricks method from a more egregious contemporary example like Danny Boyle is that it helps build the film’s emotional ambience; his soft-focus lingering and 360 tracking shots also happen to look far nicer than any of Boyle’s favoured nonsensical, garishly-lit Dutch angles of late, but that’s another matter. You can argue that the style is largely weightless froth to support what has since become a very familiar romantic story, but Aimée and Trintignant’s performances ward off a complete dismissal, as do the emotionally resonant beats the film does hit.

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The love-making scene, in particular, is far from froth, as the details of earlier lengthy flashbacks with Aimee’s Anne and her late husband gain new weight as they once more intrude on the film. Cutting to images of Anne and her husband during the bed scene obviously indicates that her mind is still devoted to someone else despite her attraction to Jean-Louis, but having seen so much of that prior relationship through Lelouch’s earlier flashbacks makes it clear just how hard it was for her to even make that push towards trying to move on. It’s a delayed sense of purpose for that extended time jump, but it is a valid purpose.

— Josh Slater-Williams



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