Pierre Arnaud (Michel Serrault) is an aging Parisian gentleman of courtly manner and considerable means. Elegant in his speech and impeccable in his dress, he reveals little and misses nothing. He is an enigma to everyone around him. And, perhaps, to himself as well.
One afternoon, Arnaud meets a former lover, Jacqueline (Claire Nadeau), at a neighborhood cafe. She, in turn, introduces Arnaud to her younger friend, Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart), a 25-year-old beauty who is going nowhere fast. Nelly's husband is an unemployed layabout who spends most of his time glued to his TV set. He refuses to find steady employment, so Nelly must work at various temporary jobs to make ends meet. She barely has time for lunch with Jacqueline. But when Jacqueline leaves the table to make a telephone call, Nelly has more than enough time to talk about her unhappy life. And Arnaud has more than enough skill and aggressive curiosity to elicit every relevant detail.
Later, when the two women are alone, Jacqueline admits that, all things considered, she and Arnaud have been much closer as friends than they ever were as lovers. But even in their friendship, she has always been aware of lines that are never crossed. Nelly smiles. Is she amused? Or does she suddenly sense a kindred spirit?
Very early in Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, director Claude Sautet makes it clear that, like Arnaud, he will be playing his cards close to the vest. Much as he did in his last film, the award-winning Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter), he constructs a tantalizing mystery with many clues and no clear-cut solution. For Sautet, the most compelling puzzles are those that involve not what is done, but what is avoided. In his world of purposeful ambiguities and repressed emotions, characters speak about everything but the subject on their minds, and stop just short of that final, fateful step that will take them into the unknown. Some are fearful of rejection. Some are fearful of involvement. And, yes, some are fearful of both.
In Un Coeur en Hiver -- which, if you've never seen it, is well worth catching on videotape -- the great Daniel Auteuil plays Stephane, a passive-aggressive loner whose aloofness attracts the interest of a desirable young woman, Camille (Emmanuelle Beart, again). Whether he is repairing a fragile violin, which is what he does for a living, or pouring wine into a carafe without spilling a single drop, Stephane's actions are carefully measured, precisely defined -- just like the invisible barriers he has placed around himself. Camille convinces herself that, for all his reluctance to commit himself, Stephane is her soul mate when it comes to ideals of aesthetic beauty. She also convinces herself that, by striking just the right spark, she can burn through his icy reserve. It hits her extremely hard when she realizes just how mistaken she has been.
Even though she is cast as a completely different character in Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, there are times during the first half-hour of the new film when Beart appears to be playing someone who has learned a lot from Camille's mistakes. During her initial conversation with Arnaud, Beart's Nelly is forthcoming but wary, involved and yet removed. This time, it seems, she is the one will hold back the largest part of her heart.
At the same time, Arnaud also maintains a poker face, even as he reveals how much he was struck by Nelly's beauty when, years ago, he briefly glimpsed her at a party. He makes the observation in the nonchalant tone of someone discussing the weather.
When Arnaud impulsively offers to write a check to cover all of Nelly's debts, she declines. "It was an honest offer," he says. "I hope so," she says. They are smiling as they speak. No ground has been given; no face has been lost. Even so, it's clear that a connection has been made, a relationship has begun.
Once back at her apartment, Nelly lies to her husband, telling him that she accepted Arnaud's money. He does not respond. He doesn't realize he is being tested until Nelly makes it clear that he has flunked.
Newly separated and out on her own, Nelly accepts a different sort of offer from Arnaud. He hires her to type and edit a book he is writing about his days as a magistrate in a French island colony. Naturally, this means they will be alone together, frequently, for hours at a time. Before long, Arnaud feels they are close enough to trade intimacies. He reveals that his wife has been living with another man for two decades, in Geneva. (He doesn't sound particularly upset about this arrangement, though his mood darkens whenever she calls.) He is estranged from his grown children. And he is more than a little melancholy about having ended his judicial career to make a fortune in real estate.
Is Arnaud trying to seduce Nelly? Quite possibly. It is equally possible that she is flattered, and maybe interested. But neither of them will risk making an obvious move or an unambiguous statement. Even when they go out to dinner, he takes pains to make her aware that he is aware that a May-December affair would be, well, rather silly. He makes a great point of noting that the wine he has ordered is older than she is.
Eventually, Nelly drifts into a casual affair with Arnaud's publisher (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a relationship that obviously means more to Arnaud than to her. (The poor publisher, not realizing his relative unimportance in this elaborate game, falls in love with Nelly, and is crushed when she rejects his suggestion that they live together.) But Arnaud would die before he admitted just how this affair wounds his pride.
Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud owes a great deal to the works of Henry James -- particularly Daisy Miller and The Beast in the Jungle -- and almost as much to those films of Eric Rohmer in which intelligent but evasive people manage to talk themselves out of the very happiness to which they aspire. It is a subtle and cunning piece of work, one that demands great patience and close attention. The pace is deliberate; the nuances are artful. In one scene near the end, Arnaud watches as Nelly sleeps. She briefly awakens, and sees him seated near her bed. He rises to leave, but she stop him. She likes the idea that he is there, watching her. It is somehow reassuring. So reassuring, in fact, that she drifts right back to sleep. Only then does Arnaud leave, to have a drink by himself at corner cafe. And as he sits there, lost in thought, Sautet encourages us to ask ourselves the same questions that are clearly on Arnaud's mind: What just happened? What does it mean?
And, perhaps most important: why didn't Arnaud do anything?
Here and there, Arnaud indicates he has reached a point in his life where he wants to tie up loose ends, to achieve some sense of closure. He has hired a young man to catalog and dispose of his vast library, explaining that, at his age, one reads "the same few books over and over again." (As the weighty tomes gradually disappear, the empty shelves enhance the audience's awareness of time's relentless passage.) He has begun to pay reparations to a disgraced former business associate -- even though, Arnaud insists, the man fully deserved the harsh punishment that, decades ago, Arnaud brought down upon him.
And although he makes no secret of his considerable ego, Arnaud appears to have a motive far more pressing than self-aggrandizement for writing his memoirs in the first place. Maybe he wants to look back to find -- and possibly recover -- the man he used to be. Or maybe he just wants to impose some order on the contradictions of his life by giving that life the structure of art.
Whatever the reason, Arnaud is devoting most of his time to sorting through old business. And he would no doubt argue that, with so much on his mind, a new relationship with anyone, even someone as desirable as Nelly, would only be an unnecessary distraction. The timing simply isn't right. Besides, he's much too old for that sort of thing. Or, as he puts it, "Certain desires never die. Thank God I've outgrown that." Trouble is, Arnaud doesn't sound like he's convinced himself, much less anyone else.
As Nelly and Arnaud dance around the impulse to acknowledge their mutual attraction, Emmanuelle Beart and Michel Serrault gracefully perform a pas de deux that is at once passionate and opaque. In the end, we are left to wonder which of the title characters has been more affected by their brief but intense relationship. Claude Sautet may know, but he wants us to decide on our own. And he has made a movie more than compelling enough to ensure that, yes, we will care, we will debate the question among ourselves. And we will know, to our great frustration, that we will never know for certain. Because, in movies just as in real life, there are some people who simply choose to make themselves unknowable.
Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud.
Directed by Claude Sautet. With Michel Serrault, Emmanuelle Beart and Claire Nadeau.
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