February 15, 2018
Love in the Afternoon – US, 1957
In a perfect world, Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon would be about two people that meet, have a brief affair that they both know will not lead anywhere, and then separate to pursue the next chapter in their lives. In my version of this film, neither of them would have any qualms about such a relationship, and the man’s philandering ways would be a joke they share rather than a potential source of pain. The two would part gracefully, and on a split screen, we would then see them meeting other people and know that a new chapter in their lives was beginning. In other words, they would each be okay, and the audience would have seen that not every relationship needs to lead to love, marriage, a house, and two kids. Such a message, however, was likely blaspheme in 1957, and so we get the Hayes Code, watered-down version, one in which two people who hook up must fall in love, regardless of how little chemistry there is between them or, frankly, how utterly wrong they are for each other.
Love in the Afternoon is about a young French woman named Ariane Chavasse (Audrey Hepburn) who meets an American playboy named Frank Flannigan (Gary Cooper) and begins an on-again/off again relationship with him. The two are brought together by some rather interesting circumstances. Ariane’s father (Maurice Chevalier) is a private detective hired to determine if a French man’s wife is cheating on him with Flannigan, and he just happens to leave his files somewhere perfectly accessible to a curious inexperienced young lady like Ariane. When the client learns that his wife has indeed been unfaithful, he announces his intention to shoot Flannigan, an action that Ariane’s father oddly does not discourage. Thus, it’s Ariane to the rescue.
I admit being mildly amused by this part of the film. It establishes Flannigan’s and Ariane’s characters and provides them with a likeable set-up with which to develop a relationship. Flannigan is the rich world traveler with a lady waiting for him at every airport, someone who seems to enjoy his bachelorhood and has no intention of ever ending it. In one scene, the woman he is with goes to use the powder room and in no time at all his eyes begin wandering. It’s practically Pavlovian. These early scenes also establish Ariane’s quick wit and ability to improvise, qualities that she repeatedly relies on throughout the film.
As much as I like these characters individually, they are never believable as a couple. For one, they are years apart in age - Hepburn was 28 when she made the film; Cooper was almost 60 – and they have virtually nothing in common. If not for the fact that Ariane has read all about his exploits, they would have nothing to talk about. Indeed, if the film is to be believed, Ariane has no interest in him until he kisses her unexpectedly. Almost immediately, her heart’s all aflutter, and her resolve weakens. She stays, and very likely sleeps with him. It must have been some kiss.
Flannigan eventually leaves. His name continues to appear in headlines detailing his romantic escapades and party lifestyle. Ariane reads these with keen interest, yet there’s no evidence that she is pining for his return. And then he returns, and…well, the film gets predictable from there. I can’t say I completely disliked where it went. However, whatever enjoyment the second half brings is the result of the stellar efforts of the actors involved and not because their relationship starts to make sense. Flannigan remains wrong for her, and she remains a bit too intelligent to believe he would ever give up his womanizing ways. Sure, there are moments of fun, such as their cute playfulness during a scene in which Ariane is looking for one of her shoes, but these do not establish a bond that you’d expect would lead either one of them to act the way they do in the film’s final scene.
That said, I liked the way the film was structured and directed. The film takes place during two meeting a year apart, and I thought there was potential there. Billy Wilder was a master behind the camera, and here he proves himself quite adept at capturing dimensions, space, and light. He is less successful at giving his supporting characters much in the way of character. An older woman’s conversations with her dog are painfully drab, and Frannigan’s chief competitor for Ariane’s affections is such a bore that it’s impossible to take him seriously. After all, what sensible person would rather sit in a balcony and pretend to conduct the orchestra than give his full attention to Audrey Hepburn?
So, there it is. Love in the Afternoon is an odd film. It is perfectly serviceable, yet it never soars. It wants to be a grand love story, but doesn’t know how to convincingly bring its lead characters together. It has splendid ideas, such as casting The Gypsies as themselves and having them run to Flannigan’s room whenever he needs them to serenade his latest escapades, and Cooper and Hepburn are always worth watching, even in films whose quality doesn’t quite deserve the efforts they’re putting in to their roles. Unfortunately, Love in the Afternoon is one of those films. It’s well directed, has good performances, and is a narrative mess. I suppose two out of three isn’t bad. (on DVD)