Love in the Afternoon (1957) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Love in the Afternoon (1957)

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Danny INDIFFERENTBilly Wilder spent many years of his writing career with a simple sign on the wall of his office. It read, "What would Lubistch do?"

Ernst Lubitsch is a legend in Hollywood. One of the most consistent directors of his time, he was a man who knew how to play the audience's expectations like a finely tuned harp. Rarely diverging from romantic comedies and musicals, Lubitsch left an indelible mark on the genre. Exemplifying wit and subtle sexy charm, pictures like Trouble in Paradise, The Smiling Lieutenant, and The Shop Around the Corner demonstrated a master storyteller and visual artist. If you've seen one of his films, you can be hardly scoffed for feeling a smile creep up your face.

That Wilder choose Lubitsch to mimic isn't surprising. Along with his writing partner Charles Brackett, they wrote a number of screenplays for the virtuoso, including Ninotchka and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. These screenplays tempered romance in both movies with respectively the cold chill of both the spectre of Communism and the threat of infidelity to a relationship. While they lack the stark cynicism that came to be a Brackett/Wilder trademark, there was still something there that Wilder held onto.

Hepburn seems a bit too old for the part of a young girl trying to seduce an wealthy man, though not as old as Cooper is.

His fascination with Lubitsch had its ups and downs. Wilder's first studio comedy, The Major and the Minor, played with the same high concept cutesy ideas that Lubitsch's films espoused, only lacking the subtle sexiness Lubitsch used and abused (this is understandable, though, since The Major and the Minor flirts with playing pedophilia for laughs at several points). Wilder took a long break from comedies, but his Lubitsch obsession resumed in full force by the time he teamed up with a new writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond. Together they attempted to recapture the Lubitsch touch only a decade after the esteemed director passed away, first with the sparkling but flawed Sabrina, and next with the textured but miscast Love in the Afternoon.

Saying that, though, I don't know if there is a real 'right' cast for Love in the Afternoon. It's the story of a Parisian private eye, played winningly by Maurice Chevalier, who finds his daughter has an unhealthy fascination with his work uncovering the city's endless illicit love affairs. The daughter is Audrey Hepburn in her most coquettish role. She discovers that one of her father's clients has sworn to murder an adulterer, and, in an act of supreme silliness, decides to sneak into the adulterer's hotel room and masquerade as the woman in order to save the man's life.

The man at the other side of the love affair is Gary Cooper. He's a playboy of the highest order, taking new lovers like most of us take trips to the bathroom. When he first meets Hepburn, he's grateful, but only bemused. She is fascinated with the older man, and starts to create an elaborate back story for herself from the files her father kept in order to gain his interest. As he starts to learn more and more about the ribald affairs she's had, he becomes perplexed... and enamored.

The plot is a trifle, and the setting aims for the same splendor of Sabrina's finest points but still falls short. While Wilder replicates the earlier film's dreamy opening narration and has the visual flair for a few sequences, Paris once again seems to fall flat. While we're saved the postcard montages of Funny Face, we're still robbed of a Paris beyond some steamy kisses on the street corner.

Considering how many Hepburn films have been set in the city so far (and I'm not even to Paris When It Sizzles yet), its of a sad surprise that so few actually ache to get under the city's skin. It's a romantic location, and picturesque to a fault, but just tossing in a beatnik bar or policemen joking about the amount of amour taking place in hotel rooms does nothing for me. It's sad how much more vibrant Rome still seems to me from Roman Holiday than anything that two other great directors (Wilder and Stanley Donen) have managed to craft for one of the world's greatest cities.

Cooper and Hepburn have more chemistry than Astaire and Hepburn, but it's still nothing to write home about.

But back to the story. By casting Hepburn as even more of an innocent that usual, the film spasmodically retreats from the joyous Hepburn from her last few films, forcing her further into a cinematic infancy and almost turning her into a full-on Lolita. Not helping is that Gary Cooper's playboy looks borderline decrepit for most of their affair. While he's still got his knack for comic timing, he looks too tired for a man apparently overcome with an almost-violent libido.

Everyone in Love in the Afternoon looks too old and feel too old. Wilder simply doesn't have the same light touch that Lubitsch possessed, and while he had a pair of great comedies yet to come (namely Some Like It Hot and The Apartment), those were complicated and personal movies that rested on a jaded worldview that Lubitsch simply never had. Both men are great in their own right, but each are their own men with their own identities.

For Audrey Hepburn, though, this is her last film paired against a man twice her age. For a while, at least.

Audrey Hepburn Sundays

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Posted by Danny

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