Review: The Best Years of a Life
by Jan Lumholdt
- CANNES 2019: Claude Lelouch’s new film is an autumnal holiday postcard sporting a few sweet notes on ageing, remembering and loving
In 1966, young director Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman invigorated worldwide screens with its two charming lovers, played by Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant, its infectious theme song by Francis Lai, and just the right amount of “artistic” ingredients not to scare off the middlebrow audience. Whenever anyone says, “I just love French films,” it is this one – not Godard or Bresson – that they just love. And with good reason, say many. A Cannes Grand Prix, two Golden Globes and two Oscars were just some of the awards it swept up along the way.
A little over half a century later, good ol’ Lelouch is yet again at Cannes, this time out of competition, with The Best Years of a Life [+see also:
interview: Claude Lelouch
film profile]. For his “film nr. 49”, as the credits inform us, he has invited some friends from yesteryear, including Aimée, Trintignant and Lai (whose last contribution this proved to be), back to the A Man and a Woman resort to look over a few notes on ageing, remembering and loving.
As in A Man and a Woman (which is heavily quoted here) and its sequel A Man and a Woman – 20 Years Later (which, on the other hand, is given the full silent treatment), Trintignant plays Jean-Louis Duroc, and Aimée is again Anne Gauthier. Also appearing are Souad Amidou and Antoine Sire as Françoise, Anne’s daughter, and Antoine, Jean-Louis’ son – just like they did in the 1966 film. Monica Bellucci has a gentle cameo.
Jean-Louis now lives in a retirement home, where he prefers to sit by himself out on the lawn while fellow geriatrics amuse themselves with various therapeutic pastimes. Senility has started to kick in for Jean-Louis, and Antoine gets in touch with Anne on behalf of his father. “You’re his best memory,” he confides. Would she visit him? It may do both him and his well-being some good. Anne, herself in fine mental and general shape (the attractive actress playing her has aged well), is game.
And so they meet again. “May I sit here?” she asks. He nods and starts telling her about the one that got away, the woman he wasn’t “up to par” with – he just had to chase some new skirt every now and then. He also asks her to run away with him in her car. Again, Anne is game. Together, they revisit the past, sometimes in sequences set in the present day (an amusing drive involving speeding and police intervention; a visit to a Deauville hotel “where it all started”), oftentimes in flashbacks – at least one-third of the film consists of footage from the 1966 film, providing those who haven’t seen it with a useful summary and, equally importantly, enhancing the nostalgic trip that we’re taken on, full-on.
Shot in just 13 days, The Best Years of a Life is almost a featurette, a nostalgic novella, a sweet little postcard from an autumn holiday. Slight as it undoubtedly may be, it simultaneously feels like exactly the film Lelouch wanted to make, honestly and shamelessly. As for Jean-Louis, it does both him and his well-being some good, as it does for Anne, too. Even Antoine and Françoise seem to get into something romantic. And over it all, Francis Lai’s sweetest 1960s anthem plays for those who just love French films. “Ba da ba da da da da da da” – was there ever a greater lyric?
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