French films typically boast two main qualities: conversation and consumption.
Claude Saulet’s new movie, the lamely titled “Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud,” doesn’t do much to rebut this perception. If Saulet’s characters aren’t sipping wine or liqueur over dinner, then they’re talking.
But unlike, say, Eric Rohmer at his worst (“Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle”), Saulet makes all the talk actually amount to something.
And, amazingly enough, he does it without resorting to a plot that is much more than bare bones: A young woman (Emmanuelle Beart) leaves her lazy husband (Charles Berlin), accepts a gift and a job offer from an elderly man (Michel Serrault), has a love affair with the man’s publisher (Jean-Hugues Anglade), discovers a connection with the man just as the man himself is undergoing a late-life metamorphosis, and she ends up wiser both about life and what she wants from it.
Yet Saulet, whose best-known previous effort is the similarly themed but darker study titled “Un Coeur en Hiver” (“Heart in Winter”), succeeds at making his film seem deeper. And there are three ways in which he does this.
One, he gradually gives us all we need to know about each character. Though we never learn much about Nelly, for example, we do know that she has a difficult relationship with her mother, has allowed her husband to leech off her for more than a year and, though she’s stuck doing mostly menial labor (selling bread, temp work, etc.), she has talent and intelligence.
Monsieur Arnaud, in contrast, has had a full career as judge and then businessman, during which he neglected his family, for which he has paid an emotional price and is looking to make amends.
Second, Saulet uses the talents of his actors to provide what the dialogue does not. Beart, the star of “Manon of the Spring,” is particularly good at saying one thing while wearing an expression that hints at something else. And the enigmatic smile that Anglade (“Queen Margot,” “Killing Zoe”) throws at a beseeching phone message is about as insightful as the Mona Lisa’s.
Finally, Saulet refuses to tie things up. He gives indicators - M. Arnaud’s soulful stare at the airport ticket counter, Nelly’s final saunter down the sidewalk - but leaves their interpretation to us.
The result is a treat: a mature study of human interaction that doesn’t condescend to its audience.
Saulet might have been more ambitious; he might have reached for greatness. But sometimes it’s fine just to settle for being good. Considering the mass of flotsam regularly expectorated by Hollywood, being good is a treat in itself.
And if that isn’t food for thought, it might be worth discussing further.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud” *** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed and co-written by Claude Saulet, starring Michel Serrault, Emmanuelle Beart, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Charles Berlin Running time: 1:46 Rating: Not rated (but equivalent to a PG-13 for adult themes)