An outline of Sautet’s beautiful Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud is easily sketched. Nelly (the luminous Emmanuelle Béart) is a young Paris woman picking up whatever work she can – odd part-time secretarial jobs at a commercial copy centre, serving behind the counter in a busy bakery – to support herself and her shiftless husband Jerome (Charles Berling) who idles his days away at home reading newspapers and watching television. Nelly had formerly held a good position in a publishing house but lost it when the firm began downsizing; now, thanks to Jerome’s inertia, the couple are seriously in debt for six months of unpaid rent.
Nelly meets for lunch-break coffee with a married friend Jacqueline (Claire Nadeau) with whom she discusses her situation. While they are talking, Pierre Arnaud (Michel Serrault), an urbane man of senior years and long-time friend of Jacqueline’s, enters the café, a regular haunt on his solitary daily walks. Jacqueline invites Arnaud to join them but then has to excuse herself to make a telephone call, leaving Arnaud and Nelly together. Arnaud had met Nelly and Jerome at a party two years before so she isn’t a total stranger to him; indeed Arnaud seems to remember her very well, recalling that her hair was shorter and lighter back then. He asks Nelly some gently probing questions about work, husband Jerome and her life in general. “Are you happy?” A hesitant “Yes”, avoiding his eyes. “Not too many worries?” Embarrassed pause, “No”. Then quietly: “Money.” “Debts?” Reluctantly, “Yes”. Apologising for the indelicacy he asks Nelly the amount involved. She tells him. Arnaud, a wealthy retired businessman, offers to pay the debt, no strings attached. She refuses: “No, why should you?” “It would please me.” Again Nelly refuses, “Thank you, no.” When Jacqueline rejoins them, conversation on the matter ceases.
Talking with Jacqueline after leaving the café, Nelly learns that Arnaud and Jacqueline had once had a short-lived affair which later matured into a strong friendship; that Arnaud had turned to business after lengthy post-war service as a judge in French Polynesia; that he was amicably divorced from his wife, Lucie, now living in Geneva with a man who had been and remains one of Arnaud’s valued friends; and that Arnaud, effectively estranged from his adult son and daughter, now lives by himself in a large city apartment.
Over their meal that evening Nelly tells Jerome about Arnaud and his offer, but adds the lie that she had accepted the money, banked it, and they are now free of debt. Jerome asks two or three desultory questions about their benefactor but otherwise shows no excitement at the news. It’s as though he feels the issue had little to do with him; certainly he is in no way troubled that the plight into which his own fecklessness had led them has been solved by the generosity of a stranger. Nelly gazes at Jerome in silence, assessing his responses to the story. It is clear that the man is and will forever remain irresponsible, that life with him will never get any better. Putting it as a matter of fact, something beyond argument, Nelly flatly tells Jerome that she cannot continue like this and that she is leaving him. Their marriage is at an end.
The next day Nelly meets with Arnaud at the café and he writes her a cheque for 30,000 francs, dismissing her insistence that she’ll repay the money as soon as she can. Not at all, he says, I can afford it and I’m happy to be able to help. But there is one thing, Arnaud says: a publisher, Vincent Granec, is interested in Arnaud’s memoirs of the 15 years he’d spent as a colonial judge, and though he has already written a lot of material, it is incomplete, badly organised and in need of editing. In any case he’d rather dictate than write. Can Nelly handle a word-processor? Yes, she can, in fact, she has had a lot of experience at it. Would she be willing to come to Arnaud’s home whenever she has free time for as long it takes to get the manuscript finished? He would pay for her assistance, of course. Nelly finds the idea attractive, and with a celebratory cognac it is agreed that she will start that week.
So begins the ongoing relationship between 65 year-old Pierre Arnaud and mid-20s Nelly, and, as Janet Maslin phrases it (New York Times, April 1996), Sautet’s ‘quiet, careful study of these two lonely people’. They are unselfconsciously elegant figures, stable and self-contained, but at heart solitary, guarded and vulnerable. And much of the nature of Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud – its subtlety, decency and discretion, the way the film registers characters’ dignity and mystery ‘through masses of small details’ (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader, September 1996), the civilised qualities embedded in both the characters’ behaviour and Sautet’s aesthetic – is revealed in these opening sequences. From the pre-credits shot of Pierre Arnaud sitting by himself in a restaurant smoking a post-prandial cigarette, rising to pay the bill and don his overcoat before moving out and disappearing into the busy stream of city life, through to the point where Nelly, having told Jerome to stay on in the flat, prepares for bed as a guest in Jacqueline’s home and settles down to sleep, the image slowly fading to black in close-up on her unhappy face, we obtain a sense of who these people are, what they are like, and the mode in which he, Sautet, is going to unfold their story.
For example, we notice much about Arnaud in that little pre-credits sequence: the conservative, expensive suit; the patrician features; the courtliness of his manner as he exchanges a few words with the waitress who helps him with his overcoat and the manager who farewells him – here is someone to be taken seriously, someone who matters. But he dines alone. And consider what we get from our first contacts with Nelly. She is in the last stages of getting ready for work, applying a touch of lipstick and discarding the earrings she’d just put on, while Jerome sits up in bed smoking and watching her. He remarks that the rejected earrings had looked attractive but Nelly lets the compliment pass with a slight shrug of the shoulders. The bedside phone rings, Jerome answers and advises Nelly that it is her mother. Nelly, running late, barely conceals her irritation and speaks briefly and abruptly to the woman. She pulls on a topcoat and leaves the apartment hurriedly with a tossed off “A ce soir.” to Jerome. There is manifestly something wrong here. Why is Jerome in bed when his wife is going to work? Is there nothing more than cool routine in this couple’s marriage? They don’t seem to dislike each other but they don’t exhibit any affection either. Nelly offers no farewell kiss to Jerome nor does he invite or expect one. Despite their calm, polite manner – or perhaps because of it – we know that all is not well between them.
It’s worth remarking that the mother’s phone call is the first of three from her in the course of the film, and each time Nelly seems annoyed by the interruption. The mother is never seen or heard, nor is Nelly’s relationship with her ever discussed. Like so much else about Nelly and the other central characters, it hints at intimate concerns that Sautet chooses not to explore. These are mature, complex people, he seems to be saying, who must be allowed their privacy; we don’t have to be told everything about them. Similarly, we are led to sense that Nelly’s friend Jacqueline has a darker side. When she leaves Nelly and Arnaud at the café, she does so to make a telephone call to Tayeb, her partner. She says nothing about the substance of the call on her return but we note, as does Arnaud, that the normally vibrant Jacqueline is silent and distracted. When asked she denies there are any problems, insisting that everything is fine. Much later in the film we learn there has been a quite serious rift between Jacqueline and Tayeb, but until we reach that point Jacqueline’s right to her secrets is respected. If strands of a character’s private life are laid bare, it is always because the character has decided that it will be so. The audience is privy to nothing more than it is told or can infer from the behaviours it observes.
A recurrent feature of the film apparent in the opening sequences is Sautet’s granting a presence or sense of lived lives to people who are quite incidental to or wholly uninvolved in the narrative. For instance, there is a moment early on when Nelly is travelling to work on the Metro. She reaches her station, and as the train hisses to a halt Nelly moves away from the camera to alight on the platform. Her place in the frame is almost immediately filled by a man boarding the train from the crush at the station. Dark-skinned, probably North African, he is wearing a dun-coloured greatcoat and a richly embroidered cap. Though he has nothing to do with the story, the camera holds his image for a few seconds after Nelly has disappeared from view. Why? Perhaps because of what Tom Keogh (Film.Com, June 1996) has called Sautet’s ‘rigidly honest humanism’ which doesn’t permit him to dismiss the man from the film without at least implying that, like Nelly, he too could tell us an interesting story if we had time to listen.
This is not a fanciful conjecture. It is impossible to see Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud without noticing its host of small, sometimes fragmentary, incidents and peripheral figures. There is the waiter who mistakenly brings an unordered dish to the table where Nelly and Arnaud are talking for the first time; the brunette assistant at the dress shop (viewed only from the street through the shop’s open door) when Jacqueline takes Nelly to see a dress she’s thinking of buying; an old patron’s coughing fit at the expensive restaurant to which Arnaud had invited Nelly as a special treat; Jacqueline’s nine-year-old daughter Benedicte (Judith Vittet) who visits Nelly’s room in her pyjamas to say goodnight and climbs onto the bed beside her. “Are you staying long?” she asks. “No, cherie, not long.” “Pity. Are you getting divorced?” “We’ll see.” Because the film both portrays and embodies courtesy and reserve, one can view Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud in the same sort of perspective as Rohmer’s An Autumn Tale (1998) which Apollo Leisure Guide’s Leon Wood called ‘a drama of life which is almost all in lower case’.
Nelly and Arnaud’s relationship brings them together spatially and emotionally; each comes to need the other. Arnaud because he is burdened by advancing age (“my frailty has hit its cruising speed”) and a self-disgust at how flawed he believes his life has been – failure as a husband, failure as a father, and in the light of his remorselessly vindictive treatment of Dolabella, an ex-business partner, guilty too of failure as a moral being. Nelly’s gratitude to Arnaud, her interest in his stories and opinions, her respect for his world-experience and, it must be said, the delicate beauty of her presence, all sustain him; Nelly has given his existence a focus or dimension it had previously lacked. For her part, Nelly – damaged and insecure – was not only saved from financial ruin by Arnaud’s generosity but has found stability, order and growth in her trusting companionship with him.
Nelly and Pierre Arnaud enjoy a warm, civilised interdependence – yet in one ugly scene they argue angrily, their spiteful words aiming to hurt. Arnaud testily berates Nelly for her preoccupied silence and, as he sees it, unwillingness to fully admit him into the details of her life (she has been depressed by a visit to see Jerome in hospital after he was found in a medication-induced coma, all quite accidental says Jerome, but Nelly isn’t sure). Irritated by Arnaud’s nagging, Nelly retorts that he is being unfair, and the argument escalates, feeding off itself until it reaches the point where Pierre shouts that Nelly should do what she really wants – go and screw Vincent Granec, the man she has been seeing, not waste her time with a geriatric like him,a self-pitying old fart as Nelly had heatedly called him. But as she retreats to the door Nelly’s pace slows and, subdued, she turns to Arnaud. “I can’t be here tomorrow; will in two days time be all right?” Shoulders slumped and his face a picture of shame at what had happened, he murmurs “Yes, of course.”. They never argue again, but it had been disturbing to witness even this passing breakdown in the quiet relationship we know matters so much to them. Storms that sweep normally calm surfaces are the most chilling.
Worse, however, is the disagreement that sunders Nelly’s liaison with Granec, Pierre’s publisher and Nelly’s occasional lover (Jean-Hugues Anglade). Worse, because it brings Granec to confront Nelly with some truths about her nature uttered with bruising deliberation. This is what occurs: Nelly and Granec are dining at their usual restaurant, the conversation listless and Nelly only half listening to what Vincent is saying. Then it dawns on her he is suggesting that they should go and inspect a studio apartment he has found. Profoundly surprised, Nelly realises that Vincent fully believes she will be coming to live with him and is already making arrangements.
Granec’s face hardens when Nelly demurs, trying to clarify her position. “No, I don’t want that now; I can’t lie about it.. I like how we see each other – stolen moments .” Granec, icily: “Stolen from whom?” Nelly deflects the question with a non-committal shrug and continues: “I’m happy as things are.” Hurt and resentful, Granec accuses her: “Stick to yourself; it’s more comfortable.” Nelly: “Call it what you want.” Granec: “Or call it fear! What are you scared of?”. Nelly strikes the table and tersely cuts him off: “Stop it please!” There is a strained silence as Vincent signs the bill the waiter had brought. Then Nelly tries again, hoping to mollify him: “We’ll keep on seeing each other just like now.” Granec: “No, I’ll be honest with you too. Let’s call it quits.” Nelly is shocked, her eyes searching his face for meaning, then says: “I want to go – let’s take a walk”. Granec, bluntly: “No, you go”. And as Nelly hesitates, trying to grasp what is happening, he sharply barks as if she were an enemy: “Go on!!” Struggling to keep her composure Nelly moves to the restaurant exit, pauses to look back at Vincent – he ignores her – and walks out into the night.
Of course Vincent is right. Nelly is fearful, shying from any intimate relationship that might become as desolate as the one she’d had with Jerome. She doesn’t want things to change because, thanks to Pierre Arnaud, her life is now shared, safe and purposeful. And Vincent had had an earlier warning: he’d failed to notice the evidence of Nelly’s mistrust of romantic ties at their very first meeting. She had come to his office to deliver a chapter of Arnaud’s manuscript and they’d talked convivially before the phone interrupted them. Vincent took the call but in a whispered aside asked Nelly to write down her home telephone number and leave it with him. We saw, as did Vincent though he failed to register it, Nelly’s wariness and hesitation before cautiously doing what he’d asked.
Granec’s failure to breach Nelly’s self-protection causes him to reject her. Ironically, in time Pierre Arnaud, Nelly’s safe harbour, also comes to ‘reject’ her but not in anger, rather as the outcome of perceptions that arise in a sequence suffused with tenderness. After leaving Vincent at the restaurant, Nelly walks through the dark streets until, desperate for company, she knocks at Pierre’s door. He is still up working on his memoirs and, pleased to see Nelly, invites her in. While they sit having a drink, Nelly unburdens herself about the disastrous evening with Granec. Remarking that his track record hardly qualifies him to be giving advice on relationships, Arnaud offers Nelly as much comfort as he can. Finally all talked out, Nelly says she is tired and, unable to face going home to an empty flat, asks Pierre if she could stay the night. Of course she can, and he directs her to the large apartment’s guest room.
Sautet elides to a later stage in the night and we see Arnaud checking a page of manuscript under the glow of a desk lamp. He pauses, takes off his spectacles and wearily rubs the bridge of his nose. He puts the spectacles on the desk and, having turned off the lamp, sits motionless in the gloom. Again an elision, cutting directly into a tracking shot (as we learn, it is Pierre’s point of view) approaching Nelly lying asleep in bed on her side. Arnaud sits on a chair next to the bed close to her and unhurriedly absorbs the outline of Nelly’s bare-shouldered body under the sheet. He extends a tentative hand which follows her shape from the head to the curve of the hip, tracing but never touching. Arnaud withdraws his hand as Nelly stirs and turns over, now facing towards him. Sensing a presence she opens her eyes, sees him and drowsily asks: “You can’t sleep?” He smiles, “No.” Nelly’s eyes close and she is about to doze off. “I’ll be going”, he murmurs. “No, stay”, she insists and takes his hand. “Just for a minute”, he says. And like a contented child Nelly returns to sleep with Arnaud’s hand grasped in hers.
Sautet has brought us to a turning point in the film, for everything that subsequently happens between Nelly and Arnaud arises from those small, intensely private moments. As Nelly sleeps, we see Arnaud at a window deep in thought, staring into the darkness beyond. Sautet cuts from this silent cameo to the interior of a busy estaminet much later in the night, Arnaud seated at the counter nursing a coffee, oblivious to the bustling life around him. People come and go but Arnaud remains, grappling with a problem the intimate exchange with Nelly seems to have brought into focus. But we have to wait for its delineation and resolution .
The next day Arnaud’s wife Lucie (Françoise Brion) arrives at Pierre’s from Geneva on a prearranged visit. We learn that her husband had recently died and, having got his affairs settled, the handsome Lucie is in town staying at a hotel with the intention of seeing Pierre then going on to spend time with their daughter Isabelle and her children. She talks warmly with Arnaud, and is introduced to Nelly who has come in from the guest room dressed ready to begin the day. They exchange pleasantries, Lucie asking about the book: “How is it coming?” Nelly: “We’re almost done.” “Does he mention me?” Nelly, smiling: “You’re about to arrive.” Arnaud melodramatically: “You come in at the end like a ray of hope.” Lucie laughs and caps the exchange: “I must read it then.” Nelly excuses herself – she has to go – and bids Lucie farewell. As Pierre ushers Nelly out she reminds him that because her divorce from Jerome is being effected before a judge on Monday (this is Friday), she won’t be seeing Arnaud again until the next Tuesday. Only in hindsight do we realise that this three-day gap gives Pierre the time he needs to finally decide what he must do.
On Monday, Nelly and Jerome attend court supported by Nelly’s librarian friend Christophe (Jean-Pierre Lorit) and Jerome’s new companion Laurence (Graziella Delerm). The hearing goes well, no recriminations or animosities, and the divorce is granted subject to the usual paper work being finalised. After the four of them leave the building in high spirits Christophe drives Nelly home to her flat. A transition (the film’s editing continually pares the narrative to the bone) takes us into the morning of the next day – Nelly hurrying along a crowded street, Arnaud’s voice on the sound track giving us the message that has prompted Nelly’s haste: If she can manage it, could she come in early? He has something important to tell her.
When Nelly arrives Arnaud is waiting for her with Lucie, an array of suitcases on the floor. Nelly is shocked when Arnaud announces that he and Lucie had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to travel – to Geneva, Istanbul, the Far East, “any countries where they don’t kill tourists”, and then to their son’s home in Seattle. For how long? Arnaud isn’t certain – several months at the least. “I’m quitting my sedentary life – and our habits”, he tells Nelly quietly. Lucie advises Pierre to hurry; the taxi will be arriving soon. Nelly is even more taken aback: “You’re leaving now?” The doorbell rings and after explaining to Nelly that they are seizing the chance before they’re too old, Lucie goes to organise the stowing of luggage in the taxi. Pierre and Nelly are alone, Nelly still stunned, Arnaud sad and apologetic. “I could have told you sooner.” Nelly: “Maybe – yes.” Arnaud: “Forgive me. I thought of myself.” Nelly is unable to find anything adequate to say. They stand in silence, complex feelings unspoken, until Nelly’s whispered: “You’ll be late”. Holding her hands, Pierre draws Nelly close and they embrace for a second or two – the only physical affection we have ever seen them share. Eyes averted, Arnaud leaves, closing the door behind him and Nelly is left alone.
In one respect Nelly has been abandoned by Pierre (‘rejected’ is too strong a word), but why the rushed decision to go overseas? How does it connect with the bedside sequence we claimed was crucial, and what had been occupying Arnaud’s mind in the hours that followed it? True to the subtlety of the film the ending is ambiguous, but we can safely entertain the following. Those fond, deeply personal moments with Nelly had brought Arnaud to clarify two bedrock elements: first, the extent to which he had made Nelly and their companionship the almost exclusive focus of his existence. Arnaud realises that Nelly’s presence has come to matter too much to him, a danger he had half-admitted to Jacqueline in an almost confessional exchange with her some time after the heated clash with Nelly. He was turning her into a comfortable habit that risked obliterating all other possibilities, and at his age Arnaud was running out of time. Reason told him he had to make a break no matter how emotionally painful the separation might be. His head had to rule his heart.
But, second, he realises that he had to leave for Nelly’s sake too. The image of her, child-like, holding Arnaud’s hand as she slipped into sleep, dramatised how dependent on him Nelly had become. Her need for the stability his undemanding, distanced affection provided was becoming like that of a daughter for her father. There’s not necessarily any harm in that, all else being equal. But all else wasn’t equal. The public reason for their being together is eroding (the memoirs are nearing completion) and what is supposed to happen then? As dangerous too is that Nelly’s attachment to Arnaud risked becoming her substitute for more appropriate, potentially more productive relationships. She is a beautiful young woman, now unattached, who, thanks to Vincent Granec’s help getting her an interview, has been offered a good position with a computer graphics firm. In all respects but one, Nelly’s future is bright, the exception being her emotional life – until such time, that is, as she is no longer reliant on Pierre Arnaud for her confidence and feelings of self-worth. As Granec had tellingly asked when Nelly said she wanted to keep things between them the way they were, enjoying stolen moments: “Stolen from whom?”. From whom indeed. So Arnaud’s agonised decision to break from Nelly had been taken with both their longer term interests in mind – to avoid even the possibility that they each might lapse into personal and experiential stagnation. But the decision carries a price.
After Lucie and Arnaud have gone, Nelly is alone in the apartment. Hands shoved deep into her topcoat’s pockets, she paces aimlessly round the living room, seeing without seeing. She stops, head bowed in thought then, resolving something in her mind, gives a short, deep sigh – a kind of resigned ‘Well, that’s that.’. She takes off the topcoat, drapes it over a chair and moves to her work desk. Sitting down, Nelly scans the top page of some material Arnaud had left on the desk for her. She picks up a pen and begins checking the text line by line. At least for the moment old habits are filling the emptiness.
Sautet cuts from that touching, penultimate image of Nelly to the departure zone of the airport where Arnaud and Lucie are in a line of people waiting at the check-in counter. Lucie, brisk and competent, has taken charge – necessarily, for Pierre seems almost stricken. His movements are hesitant (at one point it looks as if he might turn back) and his thoughts far away. The counter clerk asks for the couple’s passports, but Arnaud doesn’t hear. Lucie has to get his attention and repeat the clerk’s request to him before Arnaud finally locates and presents his document. This is the last time we see Pierre Arnaud, and he is as emotionally alone as he was socially alone at the very beginning of the film. Arnaud might have made the rationally correct decision to part from Nelly, but Sautet leaves us in no doubt that the cost has been high. One feels that whatever lies ahead, nothing will ever quite compensate Arnaud for the loss of Nelly’s presence.
We meet Nelly one last time in the final shot of the film. She is shown walking purposefully down a busy street, a folio under her arm. It is part of the film’s ambiguity that one finds it hard to say conclusively whether we should now be viewing Nelly as a confident, independent young woman who has made her accommodations with life, or as someone with an elderly man’s shadow still falling across her existence. Nelly’s figure is lost from sight as she walks away from us and blends into the workday crowd. Fade to end titles..
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This then is Claude Sautet’s Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, in the fullest meaning of the adjective an adult film about adult people, made with unobtrusive assurance by a director who knows the dilemmas that adulthood and aging entail. It is marked by clarity and an economy of style: nothing is ever wasted, nothing ever without its point. As we observed, if the film admits nominally inconsequential people and incidents, it is in the service of what Inge Clendinnen in another context (The Australian’s Review of Books, September 2000) identified as ‘the gratuitous detail that warms a scene into life’. Jacqueline energetically dances at the party she and Tayeb have thrown for their friends; and half-hidden behind Jacqueline, daughter Benedicte dances too, shadowing her mother’s every step and gesture.
The dignity and humanity with which Sautet invests his characters is fully realised in and through his cast’s flawless performances. The phrase hovers on the edge of cliché but it is apt nonetheless: the ensemble is not so much composed of actors as the inhabitants of their roles. From Michel Serrault, Emmanuelle Béart, Claire Nadeau and Jean-Hugues Anglade through the middle-ranks – Françoise Brion, Charles Berling and Jean-Pierre Lorit – to such jewel-like cameos as Michele Laroque’s Isabelle, Michel Lonsdale’s shadowy Dolabella and Janine Souchon’s Madeleine, Pierre Arnaud’s housekeeper, we are in the company of finely drawn, richly-faceted, three-dimensional people, sophisticated denizens of the class and city Sautet knew so well. To say it again, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud is a beautiful film.
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NOTE: The Palace video of the film is quite readily available. Given its small scale and intimate, enclosed nature the film plays very well on television.