CC Cinema: The Cars Of “A Man And A Woman” (Un Homme Et Une Femme)

Not long after my father’s passing, I decided to explore the world of his young adulthood by delving into somewhat forgotten pop culture events. That to-do list included Claude Lelouch’s 1966 ‘A Man And A Woman’ (‘Un Homme Et Une Femme’), a massive international hit in its day that’s not quite obscure, but not as known as sixties icons such as Bullit, Psycho or Mary Poppins. As with many European films this is partly due to lesser distribution networks, not by fault of the film itself.

Let me clarify, I didn’t plan to immerse myself into stuff my father had loved; I knew those well. I had watched The Sound of Music a number of times in his company (and learned some of those lyrics by heart), and had gone through pains to locate Two Women (La Ciociara), an excellent 1960 Italian drama with Sophia Loren in the lead. Sophia deservedly got an Oscar for her performance as the suffering and protecting mother of a teen daughter in the closing days of WWII. The film -for its time- contained some rather stark material, showing the travails civilians faced in an Italian countryside bereft of authority, all displayed with a naturalistic approach for which Italian neorealism became known.

What I wanted, instead, was to experience moments from the 60’s I had missed and were not part of the tropes associated with the era. In a sense, the world that had surrounded my father whether he cared about it or not. All periods go through this, with popular events fading away not long after, and obscure ones oddly taking over. As far as my students are concerned the ’80s were the age of Madonna, Depeche Mode and The Cure. Which is sort of true, but there’s nary a mention of Hall and Oates or Huey Lewis and The News in their conversations, which were absolutely unavoidable at the time.

Talking about forgotten pop phenomenons, what else figured in 1966’s box office? On top, none other than John Huston’s The Bible, a rather stuffy and stilted epic concoction. Other justly lost-in-time oddities appear, such as Dean Martin’s The Silencers; a period piece I could only recommend to devoted fans of cheesiness and kitsch. Incidentally, The Silencers encapsulated all my father abhorred of the era; sexual liberation turned into exploitation, filled with silly gimmicks, pointless bikinis, and a screenplay typed by teenage hormones.

Pompous Hollywood-Studio extravaganzas were in dying mode by the mid ’60s, clobbered by changing mores and that novel invention, the TV. Such was the world where ‘Un Homme Et Une Femme’ came to be; a low-budget film that wouldn’t have made much of a mark few years prior, released just at the right time. No aristocratic or nobility shenanigans in this romance, just a straightforward love story between a widower and a widow, navigating through their mutual fears and longings, as they engaged cautiously in a new relationship.

The film’s drama was portrayed in a subtle intimate way, told with an austere narrative that benefitted from limited -yet sophisticated- camera play. In general, ‘Un Homme Et Une Femme’ was filled with qualities for which moviegoers had been prepped-for by earlier ‘New-Wave’ French films. ‘Slice of life’ vignettes segued with each other seamlessly, at times portrayed with documentary style sensibility. The film showed a direct intimacy that audiences had been yearning for.

In hindsight, the images of ‘Un Homme Et Une Femme’ are rather restrained, but must have been rather titillating at a time when few years prior a kiss was followed by a prudish fade out. Possessing a soft approach that transmitted the couple’s connection, the film provided a style of sorts for non-explicit sex scenes to come (I’m looking at you, ’80s TV shows).

Not knowing much about the film, its car-heavy content came as a bit of surprise. While admittedly the film was embued with a ‘naturalistic’ approach, some glamour was still needed for audiences’ sake even in the changing ’60s: Our affable male lead, Jean-Louis Trintignant, played a race driver (not much of a stretch for the actor, as he was an amateur rally driver in real life). Meanwhile, our female lead, Anouk Aimée, played a film script supervisor who had recently lost her husband, a stunt film driver that had died tragically on the job.

The widow’s fear of another loss is ever-present throughout the film; these were the ’60s, when race car drivers just died by the speed-wayside. In memoirs, World Champion Phil Hill told of a period when fear got hold of him before each tarmac outing, certain ‘He would be next to die…’ Not an unusual thought, considering the amount of racing pals he lost in a short few years. To have Trintignant’s character play a race driver was a point of dread not only for poor Anouk Aimée, but for the viewing public, well aware of the dangers -and fascinations- racing entailed.

To be clear, ‘Un Homme Et Une Femme’ is not only car-heavy, it’s Ford-heavy. Being the ’60s, what better car for Trintignant to drive other than a ’65 Mustang? Not even the Europeans could resist the allure of Ford’s earthshaking pony.

A commendation must be given to Lelouch’s filmmaking, who captured shots in ways that in lesser hands would look clichéd and kitschy. Under his eye, the images resulted in postcard-like pieces that anchored the film’s moods.

Talking about the film’s techniques, the stock changes constantly, from muted color, to sepia, and to black and white. A concept that looked rather avant-garde even 30 years later in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Necessity being the mother of invention, this particular creative decision was the result of Lelouch’s limited finances, utilizing whatever stock he could purchase on the cheap. To keep it from looking haphazard, a narrative-code of sorts was applied to each stock type.

Note to future filmmakers: being in cahoots with a prominent race car team makes for outstanding footage. The reason for the film’s Ford-heavy content? The backroom dealings of Lelouch (an avowed car and racing diehard) and Jean-Louis Trintignant with Ford, just at the height of its European racing escapade. Jean-Louis must have been key to those dealings, as not only he was an amateur racer, but nephew of race driver Maurice Trintignant, member of Ford France’s team in 1965. Not surprisingly, a Ford GT40 makes a prominent appearance.

With the blessing of Ford, no special effects were needed to get Jean-Louis behind the wheel at the tarmac, just some cleverly placed cameras. The footage is real, the cars and their kinetic display captured lovingly au naturel.

Whatever deal Lelouch and Trintignant got from Ford was certainly a preferential one, and most of Ford’s team makes it into film; trucks, Mustangs, the GT40, and a Brabham BT6.

The Trintignant connection even allowed Lelouch to capture real footage at Le Mans. What year? Jean-Louis’ uncle took part in ’65 at the helm of Ford’s chassis P/1003 GT40. However, Imdb mentions the footage comes from the ’64 race, when Maurice Trintignant drove a Maserati 151 instead.

With ‘New-Wave’ techniques applied to the film’s styling, the documentary racing bits fit rather seamlessly.

In between racing and intimacy, ‘slice of life’ vignettes provided life into the lovers-to-be relationship. Sophisticated in their simplicity, the banal scenes added weight to the developing romance.

On these sequences Anouk Aimée shines as the stoic-yet-vulnerable love interest. Her impassive visage fitting her character perfectly.

Midway through the film, racing bits from the ’66 Monte Carlo Rally appear. Yes, Lelouch and Trintignant got a spot on the ’66 event, capturing lots of footage. Note to filmmakers: if filming on a shoestring, a plot revolving around your favorite hobby is a good idea; if the film is never finished, at least you’ll have banging memories of the shoot.

One more Mustang appears for the rally, as Ford just wasn’t going miss one more promotional-race opportunity. Footage indicates Trintignant acted as the navigator, registry indicates Chemin Henri drove. They finished middle of the pack; a pretty good result, considering they must have been giving priority to film matters.

Lancias, Cortinas, Renaults, Citroens; a varied collection of European metal appears throughout the race.

The vehicles get flogged around from snowy mountains to sweltering dessert surrounds. Rallies look like lots of grueling-fun, and if reincarnated and given options, I know what I’ll ask for in a future life.

More transport appears during the rally, ancient indeed. Very poor slalom qualities on these, high center of gravity, unpredictable handling. Positives? Low fuel consumption and proven reliability.

Not mentioned until now, a demolition derby of some sort appears early on in the film. The sequence is fairly short, which makes me suspect part of the footage was captured furtively, a common occurrence in French films of the time.

For those who love quirky old European cars, the sequence may prove a bit hard to watch, as these now impossible-to-find machines meet their ends. Still, to add the demolition derby early on was a necessary bit of storytelling, placing the idea of a ‘sudden demise’ in the public’s mind for the rest of the proceedings. L’amour..! L’amour peut etre tragique!

So, do the lovers-to-be reach a happy ending? Considering it’s a European film, it could go either way. I certainly won’t spoil it at this point. According to trivia, the film’s train station closing sequence was partially improvised and shot with a bare-bones crew. If so, the scene doesn’t suffer from the decision, as it fits within the film’s impromptu feel and essence. The postcard-like imagery remaining emotive as ever.

‘Un Homme Et Une Femme’ was released at a time when a different kind of filmmaking could capture a significant audience. The world was ready for change, and a simple-yet-sophisticated film that portrayed the intimacy of love in an uncertain world just clicked with the spirit of the times. Like all artistic creations, it was a product of its time and a window to a gone period; a window I was gladly to visit, for it not only brought me closer to those long-gone days, but to cool images of cars and racing.