In preparation for my trip to France and Italy last month, I spent a lot of time watching foreign films instead of packing, which explains why I brought all the wrong clothes and forgot my razor. One of the films was Un Homme et Une Femme (A Man and a Woman). Directed by Claude Lelouche in 1966, it tells the story of a widow and widower who meet at their kids’ boarding school in Deauville, France and become lovers. It’s a classic of French cinema, having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, two Golden Globe Awards, and Academy Awards for “Best Foreign Language Film” and “Best Original Screenplay.”
There’s a lot to admire in the film, including the acting of Anouk Aimée as the widow (Anne Gauthier) and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the widower (Jean-Louis Duroc). I’d like to focus on the screenplay, which Lelouche wrote with Pierre Uytterhoeven, not just because I know more about screenwriting than camera angles, but because Lelouch and Uytterhoeven did some interesting things like reveal the characters’ inner monologue to the audience, create flashbacks with little or no dialogue, and use silence to sharpen the action. I’m thinking in particular of all the time spent in cars, including race cars.
As a writer, I am becoming aware of just how important silence can be in setting a scene, developing characters, and telling a story. You can actually use silence to say something. This is clear not too long into the film, when Jean-Louis and Anne ride together in the rain from the boarding school. What they leave unsaid allows the viewer to imagine what could be said and what they hope might be said. Then, in a twist that enhances the plot, when the characters finally speak they lie to each other about being married. The silence builds in this way toward the love scene and subsequent scenes in the hotel elevator and train station at the end of the film.
Un Homme et Une Femme has made me reflect not only on my writing but on myself personally. The reason I found the film so compelling, beyond the love story and tender romance, is its quiet, almost prayerful intensity. I say this even though Jean-Louis is a race car driver whose wife committed suicide and Anne’s husband died in an explosion on a movie set, both of which are treated in flashbacks. Yet, there are no lengthy dialogues, no speeches, and hardly any explanation even when Jean-Louis asks for one from Anne regarding her feelings for her late husband.
I sympathize with this, because I find myself speaking less and less, even at work. This hasn’t been a problem, since others are more than willing to fill in the gaps. Ironically, this desire to fill in the gaps, to take action without sufficient reflection and pause, can lead to problems. Recently, someone I know complained about how other people take over meetings and “never stop talking.” It takes a lot to stun me, but this did. I nearly fell out if my chair. That this was a case of the pot calling the kettle black never occurred to him.
I talk less and less in social situations, too. Again, this doesn’t appear to be a problem, since people like to talk about themselves and don’t pay much attention to anyone else. I don’t fault them for that, really. I chalk it up to human nature, but then neither do I feel bad when I excuse myself and head for the cheese plate or find another group that isn’t knee deep in a description of colonoscopies.
A problem arises when you talk less, though, since talking less requires you to listen more. It’s draining, so much so that I can see why most people would rather blabber on. Talking takes less energy, especially when the route from tongue to the outside world bypasses any higher functions. Still, I haven’t chosen to talk less. I just haven’t got it in me anymore to say silly things or point out the obvious, which considering what I was like in my youth, is a miracle. Besides, how can you talk more when there’s been enough said already?
Image credits: feature by Lukas Godina on Unsplash. Source material from Great Movies. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”
I haven’t seen this film on so long, but remember being very moved by it. Regarding silences – I’ve noticed that when there is (unfortunately) an American remake of a foreign film, there are fewer silences – especially when the original is Scandinavian.