In 'Un + Une,' Claude Lelouch Sticks to His Commitment to Kitsch

It's hard not to feel a certain affection for a filmmaker who has been stubbornly pursuing his cinematic vision for over 50 years, trying to fulfill some private fantasy of what a heartwarming popular picture can be.

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In 1966, French director Claude Lelouch burst onto the international scene with “A Man and a Woman,” which won the Palme d’Or and two Oscars (for Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film), and still causes anyone who ever saw it to hum the theme song at the mention of its name. Now, 50 years later, Lelouch has turned the man into “un” and the woman into “une,” and placed a plus sign between them to create “Un + une.”

Lelouch made “A Man and a Woman” after a series of pleasant enough pictures imitating the French New Wave. The film could be mocked in its day for the romantic manipulations it relied on, but the result worked, because while manipulative, Lelouch was also thoroughly committed to his romantic cinematic vision. Moreover, that movie starred Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, and anyone who did not respond to their charm was clearly suffering from some emotional deficiency.

Over the course of his productive career, Lelouch has demonstrated a fondness for movies with formulaic names – “L’aventure, c’est l’aventure,” “Cat and Mouse,” “Les uns et les autres.” In 1986 he even returned to “A Man and a Woman,” using the same two actors and adding the subheading “20 Years Later,” but the result seemed forced and did not succeed. Some of Lelouch’s many films have stood out from the more routine parts of his work, mainly thanks to the stars, which included Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, Francoise Fabian, Annie Girardot, Jean Paul Belmondo, Michele Morgan, Serge Reggiani and even Jacques Brel, who showed off his comic talents in “L’aventure, c’est l’aventure.”

It is easy to scoff at Lelouch’s oeuvre for its shallowness and obvious ploys, especially when these qualities appear in movies that are showy and pretentious. But it is also hard not to feel a certain affection for a filmmaker who has been stubbornly pursuing his cinematic vision for over 50 years, trying to fulfill some private fantasy of what a heartwarming popular picture can be. Still, there is a limit to the affection Lelouch’s attempts evoke, and we reach that limit in his new movie: Many times during its 115 minutes you find yourself wanting to giggle – and not necessarily at the comic bits.

In “Un + une” Lelouch combines a romantic melodrama with a travelogue – that is, a movie whose plot unfolds while the characters journey through magnificent or exotic landscapes, which are sometimes what the movie is really about. Lelouch takes us from Paris to India, where Antoine (Jean Dujardin), a successful composer (Lelouch always likes to give his heroes glitzy jobs), travels in order to write a score for an Indian film, a kind of local “Romeo and Juliet.” The womanizing Antoine left his much-younger girlfriend, Alice (Alice Pol), back in France, and he proceeds to fall in love with Anna (Elsa Zylberstein), the wife of the French ambassador to India (Christopher Lambert).

Although Antoine seems like a playful, lighthearted man, he suffers from chronic headaches, which are supposed to tell us that he is dissatisfied with himself, though perhaps subconsciously. He also has some unresolved issues with his father (Venantino Venantini), which the movie handles in the most clichéd way possible. Whereas Antoine is a nihilist, Anna is a true believer, and she shares her faith with him; too bad her beliefs are too shallow to play a credible role in his spiritual salvation. Anna, who feels admiration but not love for her husband, cannot get pregnant; she convinces Antoine to join her on a journey to Amma, a real-life spiritual leader (Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, who plays herself) whose hugs are supposed to have magical, fertility-enhancing powers.

Elsa Zylberstein and Jean Dujardin enjoy the India experience in 'Un + une.'Credit: Courtesy

With the exception of a few better, more mature films about relationships between men and women, falling in love in Lelouch’s movies means that you exchange longing glances and make declarations that sound more like slogans than what two infatuated adults might actually say to each other. Antoine and Anna have ample opportunity to gaze at each other with yearning and make slogan-worthy romantic statements while they travel aboard a range of transportation devices through the Indian landscape, which has never looked more alluring. The scenery in “Un + une” really is lovely, but this is a thoroughly touristy version of India, right up there with Hollywood’s top images of the exotic East. 

Like many of Lelouch’s previous movies, “Un + une” is the cinematic equivalent of a popular romance novel, and it has about the same artistic value. What saves the film from utter failure is that, as is often the case with Lelouch, it is never clear whether his cinematic choices are cynical or nave. Since I’d rather believe the latter, the movie is not off-putting; on the contrary, it evokes a kind of sympathy as a kind of film that no one really makes anymore, but here it is before us anyway, featuring a score by the 83-year-old composer Francis Lai, who also wrote the music for “A Man and a Woman” (and won his only Oscar for the music he composed for “Love Story”). 

I respect directors who stubbornly follow their own path, even if the result is a Claude Lelouch film. And so, while “Un + une” is a hard movie to take seriously, occasionally you want to give it a little pat on the head. Therefore, if you want to see India in all its exotic glory or have run out of popular romances to read, you might enjoy this movie, even if its plot gradually leads from enjoyment to banality and tedium. 

Jean Dujardin, who won international acclaim and an Oscar for his work in “The Artist,” gives a display of somewhat mechanical charisma in this movie, and the closer he gets to salvation, the more colorless his performance becomes. Elsa Zylberstein is more moving, but it is clear that Lelouch was trying to mold her in the image of Anouk Aimée, even in the way she brushes her hair off her face (indeed, much of Aimée’s nearly mysterious charm in “A Man and a Woman” had to do with the feeling that this lovely actress was trying to conceal her beauty from us; Zylberstein, though she has beauty and talent of her own, can’t do it quite as suggestively).

Un + une Directed by Claude Lelouch; written by Claude Lelouch, Valerie Perrin; with Jean Dujardin, Elsa Zylberstein, Christopher Lambert, Alice Pol, Venantino Venantini