Claude Lelouch on dreams, movies and not being afraid of wrinkles

The idea for Claude Lelouch’s new film, The Best Years of a Life, which just had its Israeli premiere at the Haifa International Film Festival (which runs until October 21), came to the director when he screened a digitally restored print of his 1966 classic film, A Man and a Woman, for its two stars, Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Trintignant, to mark the 50th anniversary of the film.

“I showed it to both actors together. It was beautiful, I saw so much emotion on their faces, I was moved to film what I saw,” he said. In The Best Years of a Life, which will open in theaters throughout Israel on October 24, these actors are reunited in a story about the same characters, 50 years later. Revisiting a classic is always a gamble – Lelouch, 81, did a reboot of the film in 1986, a film which today he calls “a mistake, not enough time had passed” – and their charm and playfulness has deepened with age. Younger audiences may not know what a huge hit A Man and a Woman was around the world when it came out, but there are few people over 55 who cannot hum the famous score.

The story of a passionate love affair between two single parents – Jean-Louis (Trintignant), a racing car driver with a son and Anne (Aimee), a widow with a daughter, who meet because their children go to the same boarding school – the film was frank about their relationship, which was sexual as well as romantic. The actors were incredibly beautiful and they were photographed in black and white closeups that have become iconic. The movie, which was embraced by critics and viewers alike, won two Oscars, for Best Foreign Film and Best Screenplay, and dozens of other awards, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes. For many Americans, it epitomized European style and sophistication with its beautiful people, clothes, cars and locations.

THE NEW film gets going when Antoine (Antoine Sire, who is played by the same actor who had  the role as a child in the original, as does Souad Amidou, who portrays Anne’s daughter in both films), Jean-Louis’s son, tracks down Anne and asks her to visit his father, who is in a nursing home and is not doing well. The two meet and you can feel the sparks fly as they revisit both the love and the pain of their brief affair, which has haunted them both for the rest of their lives. Memories (some of which are shown in clips from the original film) and dreams are presented side-by-side with present-day reality. When a worker at the nursing home chides him for talking about a dream as if it were real, Trintignant’s character says, “No one ever died from an overdose of dreams.”

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“You can still feel the love between the characters,” said Lelouch, who seems as youthful in spirit as do his characters. The director and his stars have been married and divorced 12 times among them, reflecting a certain attraction to romance. “Love has no age. You can fall in love at any age, and you get back to your youthfulness when you love.”

The actors are still extraordinarily appealing, Aimee (whose father was Jewish and who converted to Judaism as an adult) at 87 and Trintignant at 88. Unlike so many stars who have tried to preserve their youth with all kinds of surgical procedures, leaving them with smooth but unexpressive faces, these two actors have allowed themselves to age naturally but still have a twinkle in their eyes.

Lelouch can see the beauty in his elderly characters and wants audiences to appreciate it, too. “You can see the beauty in wrinkles. They say wrinkles come from doing good deeds. We should not be afraid of showing wrinkles…. The young criticize everything and do not forgive. Tolerance comes with age, and forgiveness.”

The title comes from a quote from Victor Hugo that says that the best years of a life are those still to be lived, which opens the film. “That quote has dictated my life… the best years are still to come. I want to be an optimist all day long.”

This optimism shines through as Lelouch tells his life story. He was born to an Algerian Jewish father. During the Nazi occupation of France, he was hidden by his mother, a convert to Judaism, in a movie theater.

“My mother brought me to the cashier, who watched over me. The cinema was the only place where the Germans didn’t come,” he recalled. “Movies saved my life. From age five to seven, I saw movies all the time. Only French films were allowed at that time…. The people I saw on screen were bigger and more beautiful than the people I saw in real life.”

Given this upbringing, it’s not surprising that Lelouch has had a long and successful career in the cinema, directing classics such as And Now My Love (1974), or that he continues to work all the time. In 2015, he had a hit with Un + Une, a film about two French lovers in India. He has another movie coming out this year, La Vertu des Impondérables, a musical comedy that stars Elsa Zylberstein and Marianne Denicourt, who plays a nursing home employee in The Best Years of a Life.

Speaking about Trintignant’s character in The Best Years of a Life, he said, “In his head, he’s the same age. In his dreams, he doesn’t get old.”

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