Billy Wilder, more than any screenwriter I’ve ever known, has a knack for voiceover narration. What other novices consider a crutch to feed us information, he uses as an asset to set tone, story, and location, while offsetting the image with the spoken word.
Take the beginning of Love in The Afternoon, for instance. The voice is unmistakable. The place too. The tone, typical Wilder. We are given a tour of the Left Bank, The Right Bank, and in the in-between, where men and women can be seen in the throes of “amour,” as it were.
The presence of Maurice Chevalier is unquestionably a nod to Wilder’s hero Ernst Lubitsch who utilized the dashing Frenchmen in many of his most successful operettas. Now, although graduating to a more mature part, he nevertheless maintains a similar persona. He is suave, charming, and still embroiled in romantic trysts, albeit on the outside looking in, literally — as a highly adept private investigator.
Already in the opening sequence, although this might be the closest Wilder ever got to his idol in content, it becomes obvious their definitive styles could not be more diametrically opposed. “The Lubitsch Touch” was very much trying to put a name to an impeccable sense of visualizing comic situations with a kind of shorthand, provided the audience is in on the joke as well. Not that Lubitsch’s work with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson lacked verbal wit or that the younger filmmaker’s oeuvre lacked visual flair. Far from it.
However, Wilder’s style is predominantly devoted to the written word, imbuing the comic situations with a bite and wittiness, which under other circumstances might be stale. The beauty is one approach is not inherently better than the other and as time has been fairly good to both men, it’s needless to pick favorites (though I do love Wilder).
John McGiver, by all accounts, is in his debut, but he’s got the flustered British husband down, fully intent on finishing off his rival who has stolen away his wife from him. He called on the services of Claude Chavasse (Chevalier), and the man’s almost too successful.
Legendary international playboy extraordinaire Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) almost ends up shot to bits, if not for Chavasse’s own daughter. His pride and joy, Arianne (Audrey Hepburn), is currently attending a music conservatory, and her father has kept her shielded from his sordid work life. This has hardly kept her from sneaking into his files and being enraptured by the romantic trysts and fairytale romances found within his records.
The cream of the crop is Flannagan who is experienced in the ways of the world and romancing — an attractive existence she can only dream of. It tickles her fancy and so she goes to save him. It’s her good deed, to allow his life to continue as is.
One invaluable component of his seduction is the four-piece ensemble “The Gypsies” and their tune “Fascination” becomes a bit of a code word for the certain je ne sais quoi that happens between two people caught up in passion.
Billy Wilder has an equally astute ability in using music to punctuate his comedy through frenzied strings, featured in everything from Love in The Afternoon to Some Like it Hot and One, Two, Three. If those tactics don’t quite pan out, he inserts a handy bit of Americana like Mickey Mantle’s batting average.
The greatest development in this rom-com occurs when Flannagan finds himself enthralled by the peculiar girl who wound up on his balcony and saved his neck. She is so sensitive, a wisp of a girl, so different than the women he has known before. He also knows very little about her but desires to entertain her along with his other conquests.
Not to be outdone, Ariane strives to play a part worthy of his reputation. She takes on the facade of a femme fatale with rows of lovers of her own to rattle off in her dictaphone for his bemusement — completely turning the tables on him. Truthfully, she couldn’t be more in love with him, but she suspects a man of his reputation is not quick to change his womanizing ways.
Before getting to the goods, it seems necessary to mention the elephant in the room. Gary Cooper was about 56 years old when this picture came out, and Audrey Hepburn was 28. Just looking at the numbers makes one cringe a bit, and the most uncomfortable thing is how it shows up onscreen.
I do adore Audrey Hepburn. She’s so innocently sweet with the same demure eloquence and pristine diction exhibited in every one of her pictures. Crawling around in her elegant attire looking for her lost shoe is as endearing as any moment she has. It makes us appreciate her all the more. Because she is so very lovable. And Gary Cooper is usually fine — everyone knows him as the 20th-century representation of All-American manhood — but together it does feel a bit stiff and uninspired.
Our star does his best but he was never a romantic comedy lead in the manner Cary Grant was. There you have part of his problem. Because even the two Lubitsch comedies he appeared in — Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife — were hardly the preeminent offerings from either man.
In some cases, one plus one does not always add up sufficiently. Although it’s the greats who often transcend such equations to give us something of exponential worth. Unfortunately, Cooper plus Hepburn is fine but never enters any purely magical, uncharted territory. Like she did with Gregory Peck or maybe even Cary Grant. It’s not simply a matter of the uncomfortable age discrepancies. It has to do with out and out compatibility.
There is another major qualm too. Namely the mammoth length of the narrative seemingly dragging leaden in the middle. Because it relies on the chemistry of our leads more than any other element or supporting character, the subsequent weaknesses become all the more evident.
However, you might remember a few years after starring with Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant had one of his first non-romantic rolls playing matchmaker in Walk, Don’t Run. Maybe it’s a thankless job, but without the piece (seen also from Charles Coburn on occasion) you would not have the glue to hold the movie together. Here Maurice Chevalier swoops in lithely again to bring the story to its closure.
He puts the ball in Cooper’s court, to evoke an American sporting metaphor, giving the man his daughter is in love with the license to play with the dramatic irony. Their relationship is only resolved in the last possible moment. In the nick of time, Frank Flannagan saves his reputation — maybe he’s not a bad sort after all — though the final kiss is still a bit disconcerting. (What I wouldn’t give for Jack Lemmon right about now.)
We can concede Love in The Afternoon comes in for a final landing tying everything together along those two lines, with the Parisian passion shrouded by the Wilder malaise and yet supplied a touch of tearful sentimentality. In the end, Ariane and Frank spend a life sentence together of the best sort. If you’ve been in love you know what it’s like. You don’t need this movie to show you.