How do lovers meet and what makes the perfect pair? Ask the question sincerely and you are likely to find as many responses as there are mated matches on this planet. Longevity in any relationship remains something of the Holy Grail and a mystery for those still scouring the earth in search of grand amour. All philosophical debates aside, finding someone to occupy that special place in one’s heart has been the subject of endless - and fundamentally flawed - critical analyses. The poets and novelists are too optimistic; the analysts and philosophers much too cynical. And somewhere in between, the layman struggles with curious tugs to that beating appendage that frequently bamboozle the mind, cajoling it into making the wrong decision. So, where is love?
According to director Billy Wilder – in the afternoon; a time for flirtations: sincere or otherwise. Love in the Afternoon (1957) is the first of Wilder’s collaborative efforts with screenwriter, I.A.L. Diamond; their screenplay based on Claude Anet’s ‘Ariane, jeune fille russe’. Wilder was equally inspired by director, Paul Czinner 1931 German film adaptation, Ariane. In retrospect, Love in the Afternoon remains the Tiffany of all May/December romantic comedies, a very niche market to begin with. For one reason or another, Hollywood has maintained an aversion to showing us anything except what it has trademarked as ‘the perfect pair’ – two lovers of similar age and attractiveness falling pleasantly into rapture. But Wilder’s movie is quite something else; devastatingly sophisticated with oodles of European wit and flashes of American slapstick effortlessly intermingling. The gossamer quality of the unlikely involvement blossoming between notorious womanizer, Frank Flannigan (Gary Cooper) and inexperienced ingénue, Arianne Chavasse (Audrey Hepburn) is a chefs-d'oeuvre prepared by one of the cinema’s supreme clairvoyants in human behavior; the ‘affair’, mischievous, enigmatic and soulfully nourishing.
Wilder was to discover considerable difficulty finding a studio to back his project until Allied Artists willingly agreed to his demands; chiefly, to shoot the film on location in Paris with pivotal scenes photographed by cinematographer, William C. Mellor at the Château of Vitry, the Palais Garnier and the Hôtel Ritz. To the flavor of his French soufflé Wilder added immensely by casting Maurice Chevalier as Ariane’s father, widowed private detective, Claude Chavasse. Perhaps more than any other performer of his generation, Chevalier typified what Americans imagined for themselves as French: suave, urbane and devil-may-care. But America’s love affair with Chevalier soured after the star of so many frothy Ernest Lubitsch musical comedies turned his back on Hollywood in the mid-1930’s, returning to his native France while the Vichy regime – perceived as Nazi pacifists – reigned supreme. In Love in the Afternoon, Chevalier plays it ‘straight’ as it were; the cynic instead of the grand boulevardier. His Claude has seen far too much of the ugliness men and women do in the name of love to ever desire exposing his only daughter to a similar fate. Alas, fate has other plans for Ariane.
Wilder and Audrey Hepburn had, of course, worked together before on Sabrina (1954); a seminal romantic comedy. Yet, Love in the Afternoon marks something of a step backwards for Hepburn who eschews her usual uber-chic persona to become this naïve cellist with an idealized curiosity geared toward the illicit. Hepburn is, arguably, the breath of fresh air that keeps the entire enterprise magnificently afloat, her ability to exude a strange and intoxicating elixir of unspoiled selflessness with flashes of a more mature, enterprising and intellectualizing young woman in love for the very first time, creates a sexual friction otherwise lacking in costar Gary Cooper. Wilder had initially campaigned for either Cary Grant or Yul Brynner to play the part of the wily American industrialist, Frank Flannigan, a magnet for diversionary female companionship in every port of call. Brynner was contractually unavailable, while Grant categorically refused to even consider the part, much to Wilder’s dismay. To say Wilder ‘settled’ on Gary Cooper by default is perhaps a bit unfair. Yet, at age 57, Cooper remains ever so slightly miscast in the film; undeniably tall and handsome, but lacking that elusive seductive quality to sparkle as a lovable bon vivant.
From its cleverly composed opening montage, dedicated to the multi-faceted elements of romantic love, to its tear-stained but joyous finale, Love in the Afternoon has not only the look of a European art house movie but also its flavor; Paris’ cobblestone streets, elegant suites at the Ritz and sun-drenched parks dreamily lit and photographed in a softly focused alter-reality. The decision to shoot Love in the Afternoon in B&W – apart from a necessary cost-cutting measure – also de-saturates what could so easily have become just another travelogue-styled romp through the city of lights a la Maxfield Parrish. Indeed, Paris in the movie is not so much ‘lush and lovely’ as it exudes a moody magnificence no less complimentary to our conflicted protagonists.
The film opens with a coy sampling of the many ‘loves’ found in the afternoon before segueing to the cramped atelier of private investigator, Claude Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier). This tiny apartment serves as both Chavasse’s place of work and the home he shares with his twenty-something daughter, Ariane (Audrey Hepburn), studying to be a cellist. At present, Claude is entertaining a client, Monsieur X (John McGiver) whose wife, Madame X (Lise Bourdin) is suspected of carrying on an adulterous affair with American industrialist, Frank Flannigan (Gary Cooper). Pictures don’t lie. Claude has photographed this mysterious veiled socialite slipping in and out of Frank’s suite at the Ritz, serenaded by gypsies playing the 1904 waltz, ‘Fascination’. And so Monsieur X vows to pump a bullet into Frank after confronting the couple. Overhearing this conversation, Ariane makes a snap decision to sneak off after her recital to the Ritz to warn Frank. Arriving in just the nick of time, Ariane takes Madam X’s place in Frank’s arms, causing the distraught husband to reconsider his decision and leave the suite mildly confused.
More perplexed is Claude, who was quite certain he had come to the inevitable conclusion of a very lucrative case. Meanwhile, Frank is intrigued by his mysterious savior. She refuses to share any information about herself – even her name – concocting the persona of a femme fatale for Frank’s benefit with information gleaned from her father’s tawdry domestic-surveillance case files. This being France, Frank willingly accepts the lies Ariane tells about her own sexual proclivities. In fact, in Frank’s opinion this makes Ariane the ideal lover for him. At last, a woman with no interest in any attachment beyond the passions kindled in the moment. It’s perfect casting. Ariane confronts Frank with his own past, squarely and without subterfuge; calling him out without moral judgment or bitterness. But even before she has left his suite, Frank has convinced Ariane to entertain a repeat engagement there the next afternoon. She agrees before hurrying off to one of her recitals that evening.
Michel (Van Doude), a young flutist at the conservatory who is in love with Ariane is suspicious of her actions. Perhaps Frank’s charms have already begun to worm their way into Ariane’s heart. But Ariane is certain of nothing – not yet…especially since Frank is leaving France and certain to forget her in his pursuit of sexual pleasures elsewhere. Over the next several months, Ariane follows Frank’s exploits in the tabloids, also by perusing Claude’s case files without his consent or knowledge. Ariane’s feelings for Frank remain mixed until a chance meeting at the Paris opera during intermission renews her spark of fascination. Regrettably, he only seems to superficially recall her. Nevertheless, their brief re-acquaintance is enough to finagle another afternoon invitation to Frank’s suite at the Ritz.
Meanwhile, Claude has begun to suspect that his little girl is growing up. Yet, even he cannot fathom the change in her mood is the result of an ongoing affair with Frank. To satisfy Frank’s needling curiosities about her past, Arianne decides to make up a laundry list of imaginary lovers, listing Frank as number twenty. At first Frank is mildly amused. But very soon his mood shifts to abject frustration. How dare any woman of his choosing have a more colorful sexual history than his own? And something else; could it be jealousy? No. That would be wrong and thoroughly not in keeping with his casual disregard of women as mere playthings to pass the time. To quell his vexation, Frank decides to retire to the hotel’s sauna where, ironically, he encounters Monsieur X once again, the latter giving Frank, Claude Chavasse’s card and a ringing endorsement as the perfect P.I. to get to the bottom of things.
Frank barges into Claude’s apartment, hiring him to learn the true identity of this mystery woman who has bewitched him. But after only a few brief moments of sharing information Claude suddenly realizes Ariane is ‘the mystery woman’. Revealing the truth to Frank, Claude urges him to abandon their affair. Realizing he has come too close to knowing real love, Frank decides to leave Paris for good and with all speed to avoid an unpleasant spat and separation. As this will probably be the very last time she will see Frank, Ariane accompanies him to the railway, desperately attempting to remain aloof, then running alongside his car as it pulls from the station; her bittersweet protestations wearing Frank down at the last possible moment. He takes her by the arm and pulls her into his train car; Claude’s narrative voice-over confirming for the audience that Frank and Ariane have since married and now live happily ever after in New York.
This narration was a last minute tack on abhorred by Billy Wilder but made out of necessity for the American release of Love in the Afternoon after the governing board of censorship insisted the affair be legitimized. It really doesn’t hurt the movie, although in retrospect is does seem rather perfunctory and obvious. In either case, Love in the Afternoon is an adroit romantic comedy. Wilder wins on the major points, concocting an eloquent cinematic soliloquy to amour; one peppered in otherwise salacious tidbits just this side of becoming ribald escapist fantasy. Only Wilder could make ‘illicit’ love seem so genial and genteel. Yet, nothing is diffused. This is still a story about a randy middle-aged sod seducing a very young girl; exercising the time-honored maxim of ‘opposites attract’ in unexpected ways. That it failed to find its audience in America then was a genuine disappointment to Wilder, although in Europe, released under the title ‘Ariane’, the movie did spectacular box office and achieved most favorable critical review.
Warner Home Video’s DVD was a terrible misfire. But their new Warner Archive (WAC) Blu-ray never entirely rises to the high level of standards achieved elsewhere in the archive’s output. As is always the case; we are at the mercy of archival elements. While Love in the Afternoon in hi-def is a vast improvement over the DVD; achieving a level of clarity minus age-related artifacts that riddled and plagued the DVD release, the image remains softly focused and rather insidiously grain-heavy; a condition I am not entirely certain was indigenous to the original release. Grain is the biggest concern – very thick and, at times quite distracting – particularly during the dimly lit sequences inside Frank’s suite at the Ritz. I understand cinematographer, William Mellor photographed these scenes through gauze to achieve a romantic afterglow by candlelight. But herein, the effect remains more fuzzy than mood-setting and with a distinct loss of fine detail, rendering images cloudy and obscured by the grain density. Overall, contrast seems just a shade weaker than expected – an oversight I was sincerely hoping to be corrected in the remastering effort this time around. I suspect WAC has done everything in their power to restore, remaster and present this movie in hi-def as is humanly possible without a major investment of time and money. But the results still left me flat, and such a genuine shame for a truly great Billy Wilder rom/com such as this.The mono audio is adequate, though just. Most disappointing – still no extras, not even an audio commentary. How sad. I’ll recommend this one for Audrey Hepburn and Billy Wilder completionists. Those expecting WAC’s usual peerless high level of quality may want to reconsider. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)