What are the greatest memories in life
Memory of an affair
What remains when a memory crumbles? Perhaps, according to the romantic idea of the film “The Most Beautiful Years of a Life”, the trivialities break away, the unpleasant moments and annoying encounters, and in the end only the most beautiful memories sparkle. At least that is what Jean-Louis (played by Trintignant) thinks, who as a dementia patient in a wheelchair in a comfortable retirement home in a beautiful landscape is eking out his old age and indulging in his youth when he experienced a love story with a certain Anne.
This Anne (Aimee) is now well over 80, runs a small boutique, has a fulfilled life in which her daughter Francoise (Souad Amidou) and her granddaughter are very present. And then one day a middle-aged man stands in her shop, introduces himself as Antoine (Antoine Sire) and reports on the frailty of his father, Jean-Louis. Could Anne not visit the old man? It would help his memory so much.
Romance with racing driver
“The most beautiful years of a life” is the youngest film by the 82-year-old Claude Lelouch, the director who never really belonged to the Nouvelle Vague, even if he surfed the waves a little in the sixties. With the film “A Man and a Woman” he achieved his breakthrough in 1966, a tender, suggestive love story, filmed with great artistic will between a dashing young racing driver and an even more dashing young script girl, both widowed and parents of children who together went to school.
These two beautiful lovers were already played by Aimee and Trintignant back then, and for both of them the film was at the beginning of long-lasting careers. There was the Palme d'Or in Cannes and two Oscars in Hollywood. The film criticism was mixed - Lelouch was attested to kitsch, not entirely without good reason. The audience of millions did not care, all the beautiful platform scenes and car driving dialogues are simply irresistible, and the catchy tune that putted up all the pauses in conversation - "da da da daba daba da" - has never been rid of.
Reconstruction of a love
The great love story between Jean-Louis, the womanizer, and Anne, who mourns her late husband, ended openly in 1966. A sequel in 1986, “A man and a woman, 20 years later”, found the two in new relationships, he with a much younger woman, she is now a film producer and a television presenter. Anne wants to film the love story from back then as a musical and asks Jean-Louis for permission, and of course the old passion flares up again.
This second film is a self-deprecating, overloaded metafilm in which the romance is just one of several sometimes absurd storylines. It is a flirtation between reality and fiction that lets its audience take part in how a film is staged, thereby unmasking what remains attractive but strangely unbalanced.
The third film, in which Lelouch lets Anne and Jean-Louis meet again, is much more successful because it focuses more on the two of them, they are remarkably agile and beautiful, “but only because I put on make-up”, it is shockingly obsolete. Again Lelouch plays with different levels of reality, which are not introduced here by the film-within-a-film, but by the memories of the two old people, which they reconstruct piece by piece with each other.
Across Paris with 200 things
The flashbacks are excerpts from the 1966 film, and Lelouch mixes a lot of reality into his fiction: Anne and Jean-Louis' now grown-up children are again played by Sire and Amidou, the child actors from back then. This closeness to reality is of course a trick with which Lelouch touches his audience right on the heart.
That may be trivial, and maybe Lelouch is actually a “kitschy”, as was attested to him by contemporary critics in the sixties. By the way, the most beautiful sequence in the film has nothing to do with these lovers, but rather shows a memory of the former racing driver Jean-Louis.
The scene is borrowed from the real highlight of Lelouch's work, namely the short film "C’etait un rendez-vous". In 1976, in early morning Paris, Lelouch raced across the city for eight uncut minutes at a crazy pace with a camera mounted on the bumper.
Living film history
However, knowing all these details is not important, seeing or seeing the old film is not necessary either. Even without this knowledge, "The Most Beautiful Years" are heartbreaking in how they deal with the cornerstones of getting to know each other and the predetermined breaking points of this love. Lelouch's film is a gift: On the one hand, because it brings a piece of film history to life: This is where faces that have shaped the cinema can be seen together on the screen for the last time.
And on the other hand, because here he succeeds in something that points beyond the sentimental love story, to something enormous, true, namely the banal and completely incomprehensible fact that we get older, crumple, become obsolete and eventually die. This transience, exhibited so openly, is so shocking that this film may not be an art because of it. But the way he shows it is the greatest.
Magdalena Miedl, for ORF.at
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