Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud

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Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (1995) was the last film that the renowned filmmaker Claude Sautet ever made. The film tells the story of a young woman, Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart), whose relationship with a former judge, Pierre Arnaud (Michel Serrault), compels both parties to redefine their lives in ways that they never understood were necessary. They meet through a mutual friend just as Nelly is leaving her husband and looking for work. Arnaud hires Nelly to help him complete his memoir and it is in this capacity that the two of them grow close.

Sautet takes a subtle approach to articulating the relationship between Nelly and Arnaud. The eroticism and longing is always palpable but it only once becomes truly overt. What Sautet does is balance these romantic impulses with those of kinship and friendship, thus preventing the relationship from becoming either cliche or predictable. In terms of plot the most essential aspect of the relationship are the actions and reactions it motivates in the characters. Nelly and Arnaud form a kind of circuit into which each character feeds their singular experiences which energizes the other and propels them forward. It is both synchronous and symbiotic.

Arnaud himself is very easily read as a sort of stand-in for Sautet. One of the many subjects the film touches on is the physical act of aging as well as the psychic act of remembrance. The memoir quite literally represents the latter whilst Arnaud’s physicality (appearance and health issues) represent the former. However the very nature of Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud seems an allegory for Sautet’s filmmaking process. Nelly, in aiding Arnaud in his memoirs, could just as easily be Romy Schneider or Béart herself starring in one of the director’s films. When interpreted this way Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is a reflective piece and a fitting way for Sautet to bid adieu to the medium of film as well as his audience.

But the most intriguing dynamic to Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is the manner by which Arnaud reveals these two characters. The script focuses much more on Nelly in terms of action; Sautet follows her as things develop and she interacts with friends, lovers, and family. In a harsh juxtaposition Arnaud is restricted to those scenes he shares with Nelly and even then he is primary revealed through his dictation to her. So while Arnaud may be an incarnation of Sautet the film as a narrative is about Nelly and how she sees this elderly man. By focusing once more on the incomparable Béart, Sautet is able to bypass any self-aggrandizing. Yet, in doing this, Sautet echoes the fundamental practice of his style of filmmaking which is to locate and find his experiences mirrored in the characters of his films as well as the actors who played those characters.

Sautet’s mastery of the romantic drama is at the summit of its power in Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud. It even surpasses his previous film, a masterpiece in its own right and probably his second best feature, Un cœur en hiver (1992) in its ability to affect. As a director one of the most commendable aspects of Sautet’s works is that, while always romantic, his films are never overly sentimental.