At one point in Claude Lelouch’s 1966 film A Man and a Woman, Jean-Louis Duroc (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimée) find themselves discussing cinema:
Jean-Louis: When something’s not serious, we say it’s like a film. Why aren’t films taken seriously, do you think?
Anne: I don’t know. Maybe because we go when everything’s okay.
Jean-Louis: So we should go when it’s not?
Anne: Why not?
Ironically, approaching A Man and a Woman itself with a serious mindset may well be to its detriment.
The story is simple: Jean-Louis’s son, Antoine (Antoine Sire), and Anne’s daughter, Françoise (Souad Amidou), attend the same boarding school in Deauville, and their parents visit them most weekends. One Sunday evening, Anne misses her train back to Paris, so Jean-Louis, a stranger to her, gives her a ride home in his car. From the start, their mutual attraction is obvious, and although they’re initially coy about their respective marital statuses, it eventually emerges that both are widowed. He offers to take her back to Deauville with him the following Sunday; she accepts. Along with their children, they spent a joyous day together, growing increasingly enamored with each other all the while. Jean-Louis’s subsequent absence — as a test driver, he has to go to Monte Carlo to participate in the annual rally — convinces Anne that she’s fallen in love with him, but when he returns, their relationship hits an unexpected snag.
The key to enjoying A Man and a Woman is a willingness to be swept away by its sense of romance, just as the characters themselves are. Anne and Jean-Louis only spend a brief time becoming acquainted — less than twenty-four hours, it appears — before she declares her love for him, so perhaps it’s fitting that the viewer never gets to know either of them in any great depth; even the title suggests a tale more generic than specific. “I don’t claim to be original,” Anne says while telling Jean-Louis about her late husband, Pierre (Pierre Barouh). “You meet someone, marry, have a baby. It happens all the time. What can be original is the man you love.”
Pierre, a movie stuntman who died in an on-set accident, remains Anne’s ideal, so much so that she talks about him as if he’s still alive. “He’s so fascinating, so exclusive! A man of great integrity. He’s passionate about things, about people, ideas, about countries,” she says. Glimpses of their life together are seen in flashbacks (including one that’s essentially a music video, with Pierre singing throughout), and these montages often resemble advertisements for perfume or diamonds, romantic and picturesque as they are. It’s significant, too, that while the film is made up of both full color and black-and-white scenes (some of them tinted), the ones with Pierre are always in color, as if they’re more vivid and real to Anne than her life in the present sometimes is. When she tells Jean-Louis that she enjoys her job as a script supervisor and has no interest in becoming an actress, she explains that her line of work is “not more serious, it’s more genuine.” She comes across as a sincere woman, and there’s little doubt she truly believes in this idyllic past and her paragon of a husband.
Her romantic nature goes a long way toward explaining why she falls for Jean-Louis in such a short span of time, especially if he offers her first chance at love since Pierre’s death. He is an attractive man, and generally a charming one when he’s around Anne, yet there are hints that he’s not Pierre’s equal — not the equal of the idealized Pierre, anyway. For instance, after the story of his wife’s (Valérie Lagrange) death is conveyed through a flashback, Anne is shown looking dismayed and shaken by what she’s just heard. Jean-Louis turns away, in embarrassment or in sorrow, but only for a moment; too soon, it seems, he turns back and tells Anne that he’ll call her once he returns from Monte Carlo, even smiling as he recites her phone number.
Is it possible that he simply has difficulty coping with grief and the tragic circumstances of his wife’s death? Of course. However, the next scene reinforces a certain callousness in him. Upon entering an apartment, or perhaps a hotel room, he finds a woman (Yane Barry) awaiting him in bed. She talks about her desire to meet his son, wonders if she would make a good mother, questions him about a report in a racing magazine that he’s involved with a pair of twins; he confirms the report and then rather flippantly tells her about his new relationship with Anne, thereby (presumably) breaking up with her. The other woman is never seen or mentioned again, nor was she ever mentioned earlier in the movie. A cynic, or just a realist, might wonder whether Jean-Louis’s romance with Anne would eventually meet the same fate when something “better” or more exciting came along, but the film doesn’t seem interested in pursuing this less than savory side of his character.
It’s telling that a montage depicting Anne and Jean-Louis’s Sunday in Deauville with the children, boating and walking along the beach, is shot with much the same perfume commercial aesthetic as Anne’s memories of Pierre. There’s nothing to indicate that this is Anne’s personal, romanticized view or interpretation of the day’s goings-on; instead, it encourages the viewer to buy into the couple’s love story wholeheartedly. With the right approach, that’s not so difficult to do. The film is beautifully shot, particularly in the color sequences, and the two leads are beautiful people, and well-dressed to boot. (When Anne is shown in Paris during Jean-Louis’s sojourn in Monte Carlo, it looks like a photo shoot for a fashion magazine.) The children are cute; the music is appealing; there’s even some action by way of Jean-Louis’s racing career. Heartrending though it seeks to be, and can be, much of A Man and a Woman is escapist fare, more style than substance. That’s fine — as long as it’s not taken too seriously.