Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) is the muse and Mr Arnaud (Michel Serrault) is the man who loves from afar. Desire undeclared, is thus the soft wind that passes through the corridors and large rooms of Mr Arnaud’s smart Parisian apartment. Mr Arnaud is a retired judge, and Nelly is the impossibly beautiful young woman who is typing up his memoires of his time spent in the colonies.
Nelly isn’t a qualified secretary: she landed the roll of scribe after meeting Mr Arnaud in a café via a mutual friend (one of the Arnaud’s old lovers). Nelly has problems: she is married to a lazy man and is 6 months behind with their rent. She works a selection of odd-jobs, one in a bakery (Béart selling bread? Well, this is cinema). Mr Arnaud registers his attraction by saying he’s seen her in the neighbourhood before, a time when her hair was ‘shorter and lighter.’ After a few more sips of coffee and exchanged glances, Mr Arnaud offers her a large sum of money to ease her financial difficulties. Nelly can now hang up the baguette-girl’s apron, leave her useless husband, and move into a studio.
This gives Nelly time to work for Mr Arnaud, which, we suspect, is the result he wanted from his generous offer. And so their unusual love-making begins: Nelly visits Mr Arnaud almost daily: he strolls around his capacious salon dictating his memories and then stares at her, while she types them into a computer which he claims ‘has memory, but no memories.’ From time to time, she’ll catch his gaze, and she says nothing.
Director Claude Sautet explored repressed love in an earlier Béart film: Un Coeur un Hiver (A Heart in Winter). Here, he directs desire as a fire that burns in the silences between their spoken words. It is fuelled by the spark created by the tension between Mr Arnaud’s tight-reserve (yet needing Nelly’s beauty), and by Nelly’s pleasure in being a muse. Whether Nelly wants to step out of the ‘painting’ and physically connect with Mr Arnaud is doubtful. We question, too, whether Mr Arnaud really wants her physically: beauty, after all, stays most beautiful when it is observed from afar.
Vincent Granec (Jean-Hugues Anglade) is Mr Arnaud’s publisher: he’s a man with an intense gaze, conducting his facial expressions with a strict baton. Unlike Mr Arnaud, Vincent is unafraid to make an advance; Nelly yields, and he tumbles into infatuation, mistaking it for love.
Mr Arnaud responds with controlled disappointment. On the film’s release in 1995 The New York Times wrote that Mr Arnaud had led his life with ‘poised indifference.’ This is a succinct description of a generation and class of men (and women) who had learned to control their beating hearts, so much so that a passionate response, especially to love and desire, could only be played out in their intellect. And from a safe distance.
Director: Claude Sautet (1995)