"You wouldn't have enjoyed it."
Last night was the final offering of the Seattle Art Museum's spring film series, "Cinéma de Paris" -- Claude Sautet's 1995 film, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (final offering other than a make-up showing of another, earlier-scheduled Sautet film in June). I left the theater more optimistic about humanity's potential for civilized behavior, if perhaps with less optimism for humans' ability to find lasting happiness with one other.
M. Arnaud is a retired judge and businessman, now probably in his sixties. Nelly is a young married woman, employed part-time and burdened with a husband who has been unemployed for a year and who spends his days watching TV. (He reports, one day, that a guy came by selling encyclopedias, and that talking to him was pretty exciting.)
Arnaud meets Nelly through a mutual friend, is obviously attracted to her, pays off her overdue rent, and hires her to edit and type his memoirs. Nelly is fascinated by his intelligence, his restraint, his humor, and his erudition. Maybe by his wealth, as well, although this point isn't emphasized. She divorces her husband, who accepts her decision with regret, but placidly. Placidity seems to be his defining characteristic.
The movie is a love affair between Nelly and M. Arnaud, a love affair that gives no hint of any overtly physical relationship. Early in the movie, Arnaud assures her that she needn't feel threatened. Nelly replies with deadpan humor that she sees no reason why she would be. She has an affair with Arnaud's publisher -- a man who appears a perfect match for her -- but ultimately breaks it off because of her confused feelings for Arnaud. Both -- elderly man and young woman -- love each other. Neither can hide that fact, but neither seems able to make it explicit -- even verbally.
This is a movie of quiet conversations -- often humorous, often perceptive, always intelligent. No car crashes, gun play, or thrashing around beneath the covers. But the film is never dull, never boring. It engaged my attention, my sense of humor, and my sense of the tragic -- and apparently those of the entire audience -- from beginning to end.
Eventually, as the relationship between Nelly and Arnaud seems to have reached an uncomfortable stasis, Arnaud's former wife -- twenty years after the divorce -- appears on the scene as a deus (dea?) ex machina. Arnaud announces to Nelly -- hours before departure -- that he and his ex will attempt a reconciliation, in the form of a months-long trip around the world. He will continue paying Nelly as she finishes work on his memoirs. She will have full access to his Paris apartment. She smiles and wishes them well. He looks uncomfortable.
Nelly sits in the empty apartment -- all the emptier for the fact that throughout the film, Arnaud had been selling off the enormous book collection that had lined the walls, apparently attempting to turn over a new page in his life. Nelly's ex-husband has remarried. The publisher -- who had not reacted well to her breaking off with him -- refuses to see or talk to her.
Nelly is left all alone, having sacrificed, one way or another, at least three potential romantic relationships. When last seen, at the airport, Arnaud's former wife appears jubilant -- Arnaud himself, far less so. As my viewing companion remarked, things didn't bode well for Arnaud's renewed marriage.
But this is the way life goes, Sautet shows us. At least we can be civilized about it, and avoid deceiving ourselves. We can enjoy what we have, while we have it -- realizing that it may be all too transient.
Two thumbs up from this cinematically-uneducated viewer.
PS -- The high point in the film -- for this audience in the Northwest Corner -- came when Arnaud tells Nelly sadly that his grown son has disappeared to the ends of the earth -- he's off in Seattle, working for Microsoft.