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NELLY AND MONSIEUR ARNAUD

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Michel Serrault, Emmanuelle Béart, Jean-Hugues Anglade
Director: Claude Sautet
Audio: French Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: widescreen, color
Studio: New Yorker Films
Features: Trailer, photo gallery, cast & director profiles, Easter egg!
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: September 18, 2001

"We all want love, but when we find it, we pull back.  It scares us off."

Film ****

The noted French director Claude Sautet was in the twilight of his career when he made two remarkable films with actress Emmanuelle Béart.  The first of those films, A Heart in Winter, was the pensive tale of a dispassionate man incapable of expressing his love for a beautiful violinist, played by Béart.  As the musician, Béart was quite mesmerizing and even studied the violin for well over a year in order to play it convincingly in her on-screen performances.  The second of those films, Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (1995), centered upon the relationship between a young lady and a much older man.  Again featuring Emmanuelle Béart, the film has been compared to Krzysztof Kieslowski's earlier masterpiece Red and even earned Claude Sautet a César Award for best direction.  Likewise, Emmanuelle Béart was nominated for two César Awards for her roles in these films and would consequently solidify her status as one of France's finest young actresses.

In Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, Emmanuelle Béart portrays Nelly, an amiable young woman caught in a disintegrating marriage.  Her listless husband has not worked for a year, leaving Nelly alone in her struggle to support them both.  She takes on various jobs throughout the city of Paris, creating layouts for a print shop one day and toiling in a French bakery the next day.  Meanwhile, the rent on her apartment has gone unpaid for six months.  Though Nelly attempts to maintain an upbeat, gracious outlook, she is disheartened by her husband's apathy and realizes that she can no longer continue in this manner.

She meets with her friend, Jacqueline, at a café one day for advice.  As the women sip their drinks and talk, Monsieur Arnaud (Serrault) strolls by outside.  Jacqueline recognizes him as an old acquaintance and motions him over to join them at their table.  Nelly has also met him once before but only in passing, without an actual exchange of words.  When Jacqueline excuses herself to settle the tab, Monsieur Arnaud and Nelly chat pleasantly.  He is inquisitive and upon learning of her difficulties, expresses genuine concern.  As a retired judge with financial security, he offers to help her, though she initially refuses on principle.

However, Nelly's marital situation eventually forces her to re-consider, and at her next encounter with the judge, she acquiesces.  The judge uses the occasion to mention that he is also in need of a new assistant for his autobiography, the last one having resigned out of sheer boredom.  He offers Nelly the position, if she is interested, and surprisingly, she accepts.  Soon thereafter, Nelly calls upon the judge's stately apartment regularly, transcribing his anecdotes while he dictates absent-mindedly.  She proves to be a brutal editor of his previous chapters as well.  Though Monsieur Arnaud is initially somewhat grievous of her blunt dismissal of some of his favorite passages, he quickly places his confidence in her flawless judgment.  It is not long before he finds her presence to be invaluable, and he even provides her a key with which to come and go as she pleases.  He also trusts her to be his liaison with Granec (Anglade), the publisher for his overdue memoirs.  Granec is an assertive, young man however, and soon after meeting the attractive Nelly, he begins to pursue her himself.

Even in these early scenes from Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, it is easy to understand the film's frequent comparison to Kieslowski's Red.  Both films feature a younger woman who develops a friendship with an older man, a retired judge.  Although their friendship is a platonic one, there is clearly an attraction between the couple that awakens a vitality that has long been dormant in the judge's life.  Each woman, as well, is caught in her own difficult relationship, Red's Valentine with her boyfriend and Nelly with her husband.  Consequently, the friendship with an older man provides each woman with a welcomed source of emotional support.  But, where Red was a calm, meditative film with an often dream-like artistry, Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is a vibrant, energetic film established within a more real-world setting.  It is also very dialogue-intensive, in keeping with the conventions of the typical French drama.

Nelly, as portrayed by Béart, is an adept, resourceful, yet compassionate woman.  She thinks quickly on her feet and approaches life in a similar fashion.  She is also sometimes mischievous, taking some delight in telling small fibs merely to observe people's reactions.  She values her self-dependency, as evident in her initial refusal of the judge's assistance, even though it could have helped her marriage.  In the end though, Nelly realizes that her marriage is simply no longer salvageable, regardless.  Instead of kicking out her useless husband, Nelly shows compassion by offering to let him keep the apartment while she departs.  And, when she eventually accepts the judge's aid, she uses the funds not for herself but to pay off the delinquent rent upon her apartment, thereby allowing her husband to remain there.

Despite her good nature, Nelly does not readily reveal her emotions.  She is not a laconic person, but even the judge remarks early on that she rarely speaks of her personal life or feelings.  When Nelly does express herself, it is often through subtle body language - a wayward glance, a shrug of the shoulder, a crestfallen eyelid, or a simple nod.  Most of these signs are missed by the men in her life, save for Monsieur Arnaud.

There is a telling dinner scene late in the film.  Nelly has begun dating Granec since her split with her husband.  Their dinner is a quiet one, and Nelly hasn't much to say.  Granec mentions that he has been searching for a new apartment, one that he wants to share with Nelly.  Though she does not respond immediately, her demeanor clearly indicates her discomfort with this prospect.  Granec is slow to recognize the signs.  As he becomes more assertive, she flatly refuses to move in with him.  Is it because Nelly values her new freedom too much?  Is she frightened by intimacy?  Or, perhaps, has she realized that she is more amorous of someone else?  The couple argue, and Nelly inevitably leaves and does not return.  To console herself, Nelly visits the judge that evening to confide in him of her troubles, and he lends a friendly ear.  It is a revealing though subtle scene, for Nelly is more affectionate and open with the old judge than with Granec or her ex-husband.  Of her ex-husband, she even notes that after having spent five years with him, she did not really know him.

Monsieur Arnaud and Nelly too share an elegant dinner of their own elsewhere in the film.  They are dining at an expensive restaurant to celebrate the rapid progress made on the judge's memoirs.  But, in contrast to her dinner with Granec, Nelly is talkative and is coyishly amused by the furtive glances Monsieur Arnaud and she receive from other customers.  She clearly enjoys his company, freely joking with him, at one point telling him, "It's gone beyond work.  You're a part of my life now."

Later in the film, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud also have a quarrel.  But again, its outcome is significantly different from her quarrel with Granec and is very revealing of the emotional need that the judge and Nelly have developed for each other.  One afternoon, Nelly runs out on a transcribing session to visit her estranged husband, who has been hospitalized.  Belatedly, she returns to Monsieur Arnaud's apartment, but the work session goes poorly.  Monsieur Arnaud fumes at a seeming frustration from temporary writer's block.  He snaps unjustly at Nelly.  The petty quarrel grows progressively more ridiculous in tone, an outburst that is out of character for the normally reserved Monsieur Arnaud.  Eventually, Nelly begins to storm out his apartment in apparent disgust, but she stops by the door.  Turning around slowly, she quietly asks if the day after tomorrow is a good time to continue on the memoirs.  The judge nods sheepishly.  He has been caught out, for Nelly has understood that the quarrel, in actuality, had nothing to do with the memoirs.  She discerns his discreet jealousy of her attentions towards the men of her age.  Nelly implicitly understands his inner feelings, even if Monsieur Arnaud will never expressively admit them.

However, Monsieur Arnaud is able to sublimate his obvious fondness of Nelly back into re-focusing his life.  Where once he despaired of ever organizing his life's notes, now he attacks his memoirs with gusto.  His life was formerly a sedentary one in an apartment surrounded by the old tomes of his vast library.  Now, he is divesting himself of this "psychological burden," as he calls it, and has finally decided to act upon a lifelong ambition - to embark upon a worldwide tour.  Nelly's presence and his reminisces about his past have allowed the judge to embrace life once more, to the point where he even re-establishes a friendship with his former wife.  None of this would have come to pass were it not for Nelly's influence upon him.

In Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, director Claude Sautet has crafted a heartfelt testimony to the true value of friendship.  Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud have given one another the strength with which to find new meaning in their lives, the one to re-build it, and the other to re-discover it.  As the final chapter of Sautet's distinguished filmmaking career, Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is not only a superb film but is also one of the finest films from France in the past decade.

Video ***

Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is shown in a widescreen format with cinematography that employs muted hues to achieve a realistic color palette.  Sautet also elected not to use intricate camera positions or editing.  Rather, he presents the film in a simple manner to focus the emphasis solely upon the performances, which are quite excellent.

The source print is fairly well-preserved and shows no significant debris or wear and tear.  Skin tone and colors are presented realistically, and while the image appears mildly soft, this was a quality of the original photography and an artistic decision by Sautet.  All in all, a nice transfer.

Audio ** 1/2

Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0.  The film is entirely dialogue-driven, and there is a lot of it, too, interspersed with many quiet, contemplative scenes as well.  As such, the audio mix is perfectly fine.  The film is relatively new, so the soundtrack is free of any extraneous noises, too.  While there's nothing here to get excited about, it's still a decent and adequate job.

Features * 1/2

The official features are pretty forgettable.  The film's trailer is included but is somewhat cryptic.  There is a photo gallery of about 18 photographs.  Lastly, there is a brief bio section on the director and two main stars.  That's it.

Or is it?  Wait, there's an Easter egg here!

I rarely consider Easter eggs when rating DVD features, because if I don't know about them, I can't watch them!  In this case, it's easy, so I'll tell you.  Just click on the New Yorker Films icon at the bottom of the main menu.  This will open up a new hidden section in which you can see four more trailers, a list of available New Yorker DVDs, and a rather long and detailed history about the company itself.  The history is an interesting read, as New Yorker Films is one of only a rare handful of companies that exclusively distributes independent films or foreign films in North America.

As for the four trailers, they are truly bizarre.  The first is an abstract series of stills of beautiful women which dissolve or pan away until the film's title is shown - Fellini's City of Women.  Ah, Fellini, that explains it!  The second is a weird Japanese film, The Eel, which apparently won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Festival.  As far as I can tell, it's a love story, and somehow an eel is involved!  The mind boggles.  The third trailer is for the French film Loulou.  It has no subtitles or voice-overs, so I have no clue what it's about.  My French is beneath the rapid colloquial French used in the trailer, but as far as I can make it, the film is a love story starring Gerald Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert.  The last trailer is for Chunhyang, an Asian film about an illicit affair between a young man of royal standing and a courtesan.

Overall, as far as DVD Easter eggs go, this one is pretty loopy but is still a pleasant surprise.  I would rate this hidden section **.

Summary:

Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud will appeal strongly to viewers who enjoyed Sautet's own A Heart in Winter or Kieslowski's Red.  It is a sophisticated and intelligently crafted film about true friendship.  The film also features superlative performances from its two remarkable stars, Michel Serrault and Emmanuelle Béart.  If you're looking for a good film about relationships, I recommend this one!