Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Man and a Woman

(Un homme et un femme, France, 1966)

Here is one of the fairly small number of “important” films that, for no real good reason, I just never got around to seeing. I think part of me thought, “Well, it’s a love story about a racing car driver. How special could it be?” The answer is, very special indeed. It was a groundbreaking film in terms of technique, and it holds up very well. There is a lot of use of hand-held cameras. Some scenes are shot in color and some in black and white. There are zoom shots and close-ups. The cinematic language of the film is simply stunning.

And the irony is that, the reason for much of that “artiness” is that Claude Lelouch just didn’t have any money! He shot with a crew of about a dozen, and he shot very quickly, because he couldn’t afford to take much time. So everything was rush, rush, rush, with the lighting director scurrying around frantically and Lelouch himself holding the camera. He used a camera so old and noisy that they had to wrap it in blankets, but that also meant that in the closer shots, where the sound was going to be unusable anyway, he could shout directions to the actors, as Fellini did for most of his career. It was semi-improvised, with Lelouch giving them a general idea of what he wanted and letting them wing it. This was also Robert Altman’s method, and often resulted in unexpected wonderful stuff.

You want to know how poor they were? Instead of a camera dolly, they got a huge, ugly old 1958 Oldsmobile and built camera platforms on the hood and in the trunk. Considering some of the shots took place at very high speeds on a banked test track, he was taking his life in his hands trying to keep even with the race cars. But it works gloriously. There are many scenes at the track where all we can hear is the roar of the engines. In fact, there are quite a few scenes where dialog is not heard, and at least part of the reason for that is, once more, cost.

As the old saying goes, if you are handed lemons, make lemonade. This is some of the sweetest lemonade ever. Lelouch fitted all the disjointed parts together in a glorious and almost impressionistic jumble. I have no complaints about it at all. I’m always intrigued by new or novel ways to tell a story. Most of the old ways can be quite boring unless in the hands of a master.