Director: Claude Lelouch
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Claude Lelouch has been making films for 50 years. The hot tickets at the Chicago International Film Festival are not his two films From One Film to Another and What Love May Bring. That’s a shame. While I’m sure David Cronenberg’s and Lars von Trier’s new films are well worth seeing, there really is nothing like seeing the work of a master filmmaker completely in command of his form, not to mention a chance to see the man in the flesh and ask him questions. My experience of seeing What Love May Bring is one I will treasure forever.
What Love May Bring compresses everything Claude Lelouch knows and wants to say about cinema through a series of true stories that he has fashioned into a single narrative—the life and loves of Ilva Lemoine (Audrey Dana), the daughter of a filmmaker who was killed in World War I and the stepdaughter of Maurice Lemoine (Dominique Pinon), the projectionist at the fictional Eden Palace Cinema in Paris. The story begins in the present in a studio where the score for the film is being recorded. In the booth sit several people we will come to recognize as actors in the film, including Ilva (Gisèlle Casadesus) as a very old, blind, but still beautiful woman. As she hears the music, she nods in remembrance, and then we get a brief interlude (done as a silent film) of her parents meeting and her father’s death. Much of the rest of the story is told through the summation of Simon (Laurent Couson), an attorney who is defending Ilva from a charge of murder. His defense, basically, is that Ilva’s entire life has been in service to love, and it was love that drove her to shoot her husband, completing a suicide he was too cowardly to do himself. Only in France (or, possibly, only in a Claude Lelouch film) would such a defense be offered as legitimate.
Whatever conclusion you might come to about Ilva’s actual guilt or innocence in the case is overwhelmed by seeing how much life she has lived—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Living in occupied France, Ilva goes to the German high command to beg for the life of her stepfather, an innocent who is to be one of 20 random French citizens executed in retaliation for a Resistance bombing that killed two German soldiers. She ends up throwing over her boyfriend (Raphaël) and taking up with Horst (Samuel Labarthe), the Nazi who initially rejected her plea and then changed his mind. Just after the liberation of Paris, she will fall into bed and love with two men at the same time—Jim Singer (Gilles Lemaire), heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and Bob (Jacky Ido), a black boxing champion who saved Jim’s life and became his best friend. To reveal more would be to reveal too much; suffice to say that Ilva’s convoluted love life will continue, loop back on itself, and renew itself as the film progresses.
Lelouch has this to say about Ilva and his film:
I knew that the heroine of What Love May Bring would be a woman, and that the backbone for the film would be her portrait. All wars have helped to make the modern woman what she is, but it was during the Second World War that she really emerged. Who were the winners of that war? Women. The world we are living in today is the result of that victory by women. They know how to juggle their dreams and the hardships of daily life. They can take a blow and bounce back, they can heal. Love can kill them but it is also love that cures them. I understood very early on that women are ready to sacrifice themselves for love, that they were at the essential heart of things.
Ilva may be the backbone, but observations about the costs of human emotion and Lelouch’s own history are the appendages. Simon, for example, is a very gifted musician who can’t decide between music and law. He and his family are sent to a concentration camp because his neighbors want to be rid of his piano noise, yet his ability to play and entertain the camp soldiers saves his life and keeps his belly full. On the train to Auschwitz, he meets and instantly falls in love with the beautiful Salomé Blum (Salomé Lelouch), who, with her family, is denounced and sent to her death because the family are so successful at making wedding gowns that their concierge (Lise Lamétirie) never has a chance to use their sewing machine. After the war, Simon visits Madame DeBois and asks her the price of the sewing machine. She’s a bit confused at first, until he asks about the Blums and then says, “I know the price of that sewing machine.” He makes her squirm a bit, but chances are she won’t be eaten with guilt the way Jim is for the way he stole Ilva from Bob.
Lelouch’s story appears in the person of Coco, a Jewish boy who is hidden from the Gestapo in a basement but is kept from going stir-crazy and betraying his location when Ilva looks after him as he watches films at the Eden Palace. In an affecting scene, Coco at age 7 (Boaz Lelouch) goes up to the screen to see where the people are. Ilva redirects him to Maurice, who shows him how the magic lantern works and begins his apprenticeship. Later, Coco at age 19 (Sachka Lelouch) will film the first of many kisses to come when Ilva and the man who becomes her final, enduring love kiss for the first time. Lelouch has stated flatly that movies literally saved his life and that that kiss inspired all the ones that followed.
Music is a very important part of every one of Lelouch’s film. He said in the Q&A that he has two actors that come first in his movies: the camera and the music. He developed the score for the film even before he shot a single frame, and he hit the jackpot when he cast Laurent Couson as Simon. Couson is actually a very accomplished musician, playing piano and trumpet simultaneous in a Paris nightclub in one scene and conducting the orchestra that is scoring What Love May Bring. A slightly amusing and effective scene shows him auditioning for a music academy after the war. He plays a very impassioned classical piece as images of Salomé, the gaunt faces of other camp survivors, the neighbors who betrayed him, flash through his mind; overwhelmed, he breaks into “Stormy Weather” (Ilva’s song, he will learn one day in the future) and other jazz tunes, only coming back to the classical piece in the last couple of bars. A judge says “Well?” and he only answers “I’ll study law.” He never closes himself off from his creative side, however, as he plays at the nightclub after every case he wins.
Dana is incredible as Ilva. She is very attractive and seduces us along with every man she meets in the loving close-ups Lelouch favors. Dana is bold in playing a survivor who uses sex to thank people for doing her favors, for example, saving her father or saving her from the partisans who are arresting collaborators. She, like Piaf, regrets nothing when it comes to love, though she realizes too late that her decision-making skills often cause quite a lot of hurt. In the end, Dana maintains Ilva’s character as a straight throughline, and she becomes, if not the most noble character, at least one deserving of respect for her personal integrity.
Anouk Aimée makes a brief and quite lovely appearance as an actress on her way to the death camp. We see her on the train talking into a telephone to someone who might be her agent. She says she is to appear in a Cocteau play and will clear it up with the authorities once they reach their destination. She seems terribly self-absorbed and self-important, as the other passengers stare at her impassively. Modern audiences used to using cellphones might be fooled into thinking she really is on the phone, but of course, she merely brought this prop to rehearse a performance she still thought she would be giving. The other passengers on the train applaud her at the end. The film is filled to overflowing with such wonderful vignettes that put people rather than film technique at center stage.
A last homage Lelouch pays to cinema comes at the end of the film, which contains images from his many films and the many great actors, including Aimée in her younger days, he immortalized. After watching this, Lelouch’s 43rd film, I had an overwhelming feeling that I never needed to see another film again. Of course, this was a fleeting emotion, but it did express how swept up I felt in this chronicle of many grand passions and how fulfilling the experience was for me. A veteran observer of love, Claude Lelouch dedicates this film in an opening intertitle to his seven children; anyone who sees this film will recognize the profound love of this gesture and feel it as part of Lelouch’s extended family—his audience.
*Here’s a personal shout-out to Mark and Tom, two people who live in Mt. Prospect who have a clue about cinema. Thanks for making our evening at the AMC more enjoyable with their company and conversation.
What Love May Bring will screen Tuesday, October 11, 3:30 p.m., at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
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