Choosing involves risk

Love not factored into his crime plan

Published: Jan 01 2019, 01:01:am

Monday, July 22, 1974

LA BONNE ANNÉE (Happy New Year). Co-written by Pierre Uytterhoeven. Music by Francis Lai. Co-written, photographed and directed by Claude Lelouch. Running time: 115 minutes. Mature entertainment in French with English subtitles.
DIRECTOR CLAUDE LELOUCH HAS an instinct for the nice. That, combined with a canny sense of social timing, has made the prolific ex-TV director both popular and successful.
    A full four years before Hollywood's press agents decreed a return to romance [1966], Lelouch offered audiences Un Homme et Une Femme (A Man and a Woman), a lush, lachrymose, terribly nice love story. The film became an international hit, winning its director two Academy Awards — one for his original screenplay and the other for producing the best foreign language picture of 1966.
    This year [1974], Lelouch offers La Bonne Année (Happy New Year), a movie that proves that his instinct and timing are still intact. Not only is it the nicest film to turn up at this year's Varsity Festival of International Films, it is also shrewdly in keeping with the mood of the moment.
    The new movie is both self-mocking and self-assured. It opens with the final scenes of Un Homme et Une Femme, one of the most colour-rich films of its year, being played out in black and white. The end of the movie, its famous love theme erupting like a sugar-syrup volcano, is greeted with howls of derision.
    Changing angle, Lelouch's camera reveals that his earlier film has just been shown to an audience of prison inmates. Such unalloyed sentimentality is hardly the thing for a sophisticated audience in 1974.
    This year's audience wants more mature fare, a film that can entertainingly mix themes of love and crime, of freedom and fidelity. This year's Lelouch is more than willing to provide it.
    Like so many recent films, La Bonne Année begins with its hero getting out of prison. Simon (Lino Ventura), a middle-aged jewel thief, has just served six years for robbing the exclusive Van Cleef & Arpels store in Cannes.
    Released on a warden's amnesty, he returns to his Paris apartment. It's apparent that he is being followed.
    With the audience still in the dark about just what is going on, Simon visits a transvestite-friendly night club. As he sits alone in the crowd of New Year's Eve revelers, he thinks about his past.
    Here, Lelouch switches from black-and-white to colour photography, and the tale of the robbery unfolds in flashback. We learn that Simon had a partner named Charlot (Charles Gérard), and that together they executed a complex, precisely timed heist.
    In the process, Simon became involved with an attractive, intelligent and decidedly liberated antique dealer named Françoise (Françoise Fabian). Initially, he let her think that he was a businessman on a winter holiday.
    Despite different backgrounds, Simon and Françoise are kindred spirits. Although he engineers their meeting as carefully as he would a caper, once together their relationship builds of its own volition.
    Their conversations (scripted by Lelouch and Pierre Uytterhoeven, who shared the 1966 writing Oscar with him) have an easy, authentic ring, one that makes their growing affection both beautiful and believable. Their gentle, tenuous love is in sharp contrast to the robust, knockabout friendship that the two men share.
    Throughout, crime marches on. The caper works like a fine Swiss watch except for one detail — Simon gets caught.
     Excited by his dynamic new identity, Françoise promises to wait for him, keeping faith in her own way. From Charlot, who managed to get away with the loot, there is no communication.
    On New Years Eve six years later, Simon begins tying the loose ends together. Have either his friend or his lover been faithful? What have six years without freedom done to him? It would be unfair to give away the answers.
    Instead, let me say that La Bonne Année is a genuine pleasure, an even-tempered, good-natured movie. Lelouch, a director who is his own cinematographer, manages to create likeable, insistently human characters who are capable of enjoying fully satisfying relationships.
    Simon's criminal career is actually in his favour, given that he is a jewel thief and everyone knows that jewel robbery is less a crime than an elaborate game. When executed with skill and without violence, it can even be an art.
     As for the money, the bejewelled classes never miss it.
    In keeping with the requirements of the new model year, Lelouch provides his film with an ambiguous, properly thought-provoking ending. Along the way there, though, he keeps up a steady flow of bright, world-wise dialogue. His characters are constantly getting off bons mots.
    Told that they are pulling a "psychological crime," partner Charlot says, "Some day tell me what psychology is."
    Replies Simon: "It's knowing how to screw others before they screw you."
    Later, in an exchange across Françoise's dinner table, the subject is movies. "Do you read the critics?” asks her haughty Italian boyfriend.
     "No," replies Simon tersly.
    "Then, how do you choose a movie?" asks the amused intellectual.
    "The way I choose a woman," comes the evenly spoken answer. "By taking risks."
    Very nice, actually, and very much in keeping with the character of Simon. Lelouch,  on the other  hand,  takes very few risks, with the result that his audience is well entertained.
    Nice is leaving a movie with a good feeling. Did I mention that La Bonne Année is nice?

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In an April 18, 2008 interview with British director Jon Amiel (available on the Directors Guild of America website), Claude Lelouch told the story of how “cinema saved my life.” Born in Paris in 1937, his family was wanted by the Gestapo during the German occupation for the crime of being Jewish. Lelouche recalled his mother hiding him in movie theatres, where he fell in love with film.
    And that’s just the sort of happy beginning tale with which to greet a new year. Scheduled for a May 2019 release is Les plus belles années (The Most Beautiful Years), a feature-film epilogue to A Man and A Woman shot on the director’s iPhone. The result promises to be a call worth taking.