Claude Lelouch’s latest film “The Best Years of a Life” is a sentimental epilogue which frequently takes us back to the nostalgic memories of its two main characters, who passionately fell in love in Lelouch’s Oscar-winning film “A Man and A Woman” (1966). Although it is more or less than a footnote to that lovely classic film, the movie is often enhanced by the undeniable chemistry between its two lead performers, who still shine together although they were near 90 around the time when the movie was made.
The story starts at a cozy facility for old people where Jean-Louis Duroc (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is currently living. While he looks mostly okay on the surface, Jean-Louis has been struggling with the late onset of dementia, and he often finds himself lost in the memories of his old times whenever he is left on a couch installed in the lawn in front of the facility. As you can surely remember if you have ever watched “A Man and A Woman”, Jean-Louis was a dashing and promising car racer at that time, and Trintignant is quietly poignant whenever his current fragile appearance is contrasted with how handsome and confident he looked at that time.
In that movie, Jean-Louis happened to come across a young widow named Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimée), whose daughter happened to be the same boarding school which his son. As they subsequently came to spend more time with each other, a certain mutual feeling was developed between them, and, despite Anne’s grief associated with her dead husband, they eventually became more passionate about each other with Francis Lai’s catchy score frequently played in the background, and it looked like they would be never apart from each other as they openly embraced each other at the end of that film.
However, as Anne frankly admits to us at the beginning of the film, she and Jean-Louis subsequently became separated from each other because their almost perfect romance was eventually tarnished mainly due to Jean-Louis’ indiscretion, and they have never met each other again for more than 50 years. Lelouch actually made a sequel titled “”A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later” (1986), but he thankfully erases that uneven misfire from the timeline of his two main characters, and, if you dislike that film as much I did, you will gladly go along with that change without much problem.
At present, Anne is running a small shop alone in a small town of Normandy mainly for living closer to her daughter Françoise (Souad Amidou, who incidentally played young Françoise in the 1966 film), who works as a horse veterinarian there. When Jean-Louis’s son Antoine (Antoine Sire, who also appeared in the 1966 film as young Antoine) comes to the shop for asking her to meet his father, she is understandably reluctant, but she eventually decides to visit that facility for old times’ sake.
When Anne finally meets Jean-Louis again, it does not take much for her to realize how foggy his mind has been these days. While recognizing her at all, he cannot help but ramble about his precious memories of his romantic relationship with her, and she listens to him with care and compassion while not saying much about her. Although many years have passed since they appeared together in 1966 and 1986, Trintignant and Aimée effortlessly interact with each other on the screen, and these two living legends of French Cinema poignantly remind us again that they have lost none of their talent and presence yet despite their old age.
However, Lelouch cannot help but become sentimental about those glory days of him and his two lead performers, and the movie frequently goes back to those highlight moments of the 1966 film. Yes, we see again how Jean-Louis and Anne came to fall in love as talking with each other in his car. Yes, we revisit that undeniably romantic moment on a beach. Yes, we watch again that bittersweet intimate lovemaking scene between them unfolded within one room of a nearby hotel.
In addition, Lelouch also tries no less than two dream sequences where Anne allows herself to join Jean-Louis’s nutty escapade. These sequences are playful with some amusing moments to be savored, but the movie seems to be going anywhere beyond that, and I am not so sure about whether a certain key scene featuring Monica Bellucci is real or not.
Anyway, Trintignant and Aimée still carry the film well together, and I would not complain at all if Lelouch simply lets these two very engaging performers talk and talk with each other throughout the 90-minute running time of his film. Since I belatedly came to notice him via Krzysztof Kieślowski’s last film “Three Colors: Red” (1994), Trintignant has been always interesting to watch, and the same thing can be said about Aimée, who was constantly terrific in many notable films including Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (1960) and “8 1/2” (1963). They always click quite well together from the beginning to the end, and it is a shame that the movie does not go further with them to give us something as sublime as, say, Ingmar Bergman’s “Saraband” (2003), a sequel to his great film “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973).
In conclusion, “The Best Years of a Life” is no more than a sappy tribute to “A Man and A Woman”, but it is still worthwhile to watch mainly for its two great performers who surely deserve to be commended for trying their best with the material given to them. If you like the 1966 film, you should check it out someday, and I assure you that you will humming again its theme song.