Nelly And Monsieur Arnaud

on June 21, 1996 by Alex Albanese
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   Foreign films offer a refreshing change of pace from our own native product, either Hollywood or indie. When the cinema in question is French, however, the refreshment is usually of a more bracing variety. Every foreign feature provides an intriguing glimpse into cultures and mores that aren't our own, but with a French movie there is an alien something that goes deeper--a strangeness underlying both content and context that has to do with the essence of form, the very nature of film.
   Their narrative model grew independent of Hollywood's, and it has self-consciously remained separate. French critic Andre Bazin once asked the question, "What is cinema?" The fundamental difference in the French answer makes for a viewing experience both engrossing and offputting; no other national cinema can seem so relentless "other" to American eyes. Because of this, many statesiders simply categorize French films as difficult and stay away, and even for fans there is an attraction/repulsion mechanism at work than can be confounding.
   Case in point: Claude Sautet's "Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud," the story of an unlikely relationship between two lonely, isolated people. M. Arnaud (Michel Serrault, best known stateside for "La Cage Aux Folles") is an older, wealthy businessman who meets a young, beautiful woman named Nelly (French actress Emmanuelle Beart, soon to be seen in "Mission: Impossible") by chance and offers her a job typing his memoirs. The tale is full of fairly conventional elements--unstated passions and reproaches, jealousy, pettiness and unrequited love--but Sautet (who directed Beart in his "Un Coeur en Hiver") handles his characters and their emotions in such a subtle, "French" way that the most basic motivations and turning points are the easiest to miss.
   Everything Hollywood would trumpet with an orchestral movement and gush of naked feeling here glides by with hardly a rustle, and the film's structure and resolute lack of closure deeply subvert American expectations of how a movie should be, how a movie should work and how a story is told. But it's worth a look, however quizzical.    Starring Emmanuelle Beart, Michel Serrault and Jean-Hugues Anglade. Directed by Claude Sautet. Written by Claude Sautet, Jacques Fieschi and Yves Ulmann. Produced by Alain Sarde. An Artificial Eye release. Drama. French-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 106 min.
Tags: Emmanuelle Beart, Michel Serrault, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Claude Sautet, French, foreign, romance, infidelity
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