Cannes ’66 ends in a draw between love and lust

Cannes ’66 ends in a draw between love and lust

Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

A Man And A Woman (1966) and Signore & Signori (1966)

Ties are fairly common at the Cannes Film Festival, where the jury often opts to spread the wealth among several worthy recipients rather than declare an empirical best in show. (This is only possible because, unlike the Oscars, the awards at Cannes are discussed and decided upon by a small body of voters.) Far less common, however, are years in which honors seem to have been split between two polar-opposite films, as though one winning selection were a response to, or even an apology for, the other. Look, for example, at Cannes 1966, when the top prize—then the Grand Prix, now the Palme D’Or—went to two films whose similar titles disguise almost antithetical agendas.

One of them, A Man And A Woman, is a stylish French romance about two widowed, single parents who meet cute, whisper sweet nothings, and fall deeply into each other’s embrace. The other, Signore & Signori (or Ladies & Gentlemen), is a three-part Italian sex comedy in which a group of husbands spend just about every waking hour trying to cheat on their wives. Both films boast infectious music and shots of their characters motoring around European cities. Beyond that, they could scarcely have less in common, especially in their perspectives—on men and women, on ladies and gentlemen, and especially on relationships. It’s like trying to compare a valentine to a National Geographic special on animal mating habits.

In ’66, the president of the jury was Sophia Loren, the Italian bombshell and internationally renowned movie star. Because of her nationality, it’s easy to theorize that the actress swayed her fellow jury members in favor of Signore & Signori. (Jury presidents have been accused of much greater sins of favoritism.) Yet given her then-regular appearance in American romances, isn’t it just as likely that Loren stumped for A Man And A Woman, a film whose French New Wave gestures are no more prominent than its big, Hollywood heart? Maybe it’s more fun to imagine that Loren and her cohorts deliberately selected these two wildly different films as a kind of yin-yang thesis on the ways love and lust are portrayed onscreen. Each could theoretically cleanse one’s palette of the other: Swoon over for the fashionably melancholy courtship of Woman, then get a reality check from the harsh, painfully funny truths of Signori—or vice versa!

They’d make a fine, schizophrenic double bill, if both were readily available to rent. But the Italian comedy, unlike the French drama it shared the prize with, is almost impossible to get a hold of in the States. Not only has it never been released on Blu-ray, DVD, or even VHS in this country, there’s really no way to watch it through… alternative means either, because proper English subtitles have not been disseminated. Faced with the possibility of having to punt on this piece, I concocted a novel, unintuitive work-around: I purchased an Italian Region 2 DVD and watched it with an Italian-speaking friend, who graciously translated the dialogue as we went. (Thanks Gisella!) This might not be the ideal way to absorb a movie—any movie, really—but it was certainly a unique experience.

The on-the-fly translation turned out to be crucial, as Signore & Signori unfolds as an almost unbroken stream of insults, gags, arguments, antics, and seductions. When it opened in the States, the movie was rechristened The Birds, The Bees And The Italians—a title that sacrifices the subtle sarcasm of Ladies & Gentlemen to instead emphasize the almost zoological hedonism of its characters. Are the film’s gender politics specific to its country of origin? Maybe not, but there’s no denying that director Pietro Germi, that most cynical of Italian satirists, reserves a special scorn for the men of his homeland. Signore & Signori followed right on the heels of Germi’s biggest international successes, Seduced And Abandoned and Divorce, Italian Style, and it shares with those movies a dim view of masculinity and “polite” Italian society, masked by a relentlessly cheerful tone. It is, like its predecessors, a playful farce about low-down, dirty horndogs whose bad behavior is condoned and reinforced by the social institutions around them.

The plot consists of three connected stories, each focused on the unfaithful elite of Treviso, Italy. Individually, these short-form comedies work remarkably well, largely because Germi has a gift for keeping his tales spinning like tops, even when they’re moving into darker territory. (There’s a longish party scene in the first act that’s a marvel of sustained energy and crosscutting hilarity.) It’s as a whole, however, that Signore & Signori really cooks, gaining a cumulative outrage as it moves from passage to passage. 

In the first and most lighthearted segment, about an impotent husband who becomes the butt of his confidant’s jokes (only to later get the last laugh), Germi introduces his cast of bed-hopping socialites, just about all of whom are chasing affairs. Part two compounds his damning vision of community by demonstrating what happens when one of the others, an unhappily married banker, dares to actually leave his wife for another woman: The mistress is fired from her café job and evicted from her home, while the absentee husband faces pressures from the church and his employers to crawl back home. (The implicit lesson: Having something on the side is okay, so long as you don’t fall in love with that something and embarrass your social circle.) And in the final installment, the menfolk lust over the new girl in town, lavishing gifts upon her in exchange for sexual favors, only to discover that she’s underage. The same moralizing institutions that were condemning divorce just a half-hour earlier help drum up the necessary money to pay off the young girl’s father. Though not as scandalous as the end of Divorce, Italian Style, the upshot here—namely, that pedophilia turns out to be more forgivable than splitting up a family—is plenty bleak.

All of that may make Signore & Signori sound like an unpleasant experience, but the film is another reminder that no one rolls biting cultural critique into a screwball-comic framework quite like Germi. Most impressive is his ability to wring big laughs out of despicable behavior (and its very serious consequences). The clip below, pulled from the final segment of the movie, depicts a teenage girl pointing out her statutory rapists. But the lilting music and comical reveals, in which said girl and accompanying police officer pop into the frame unexpectedly, give the montage an uncomfortably farcical quality. (There are, again, no subtitles, but you’ll get the drift without them.)

This being a Germi sex comedy, most of the relationships depicted are doomed or dysfunctional. At least here, love is a sucker bet—a fleeting feeling, eventually replaced by boredom, jealousy, and resentment. The only romance in Signore & Signori that remotely qualifies as, well, romantic, is the torrid affair in the second chapter. But is the banker really in love with his young barista mistress, or is it pure lust, inflated into something larger when coupled with a hatred of his bullying wife? Did the banker once look at his wife the way he now looks at his mistress? Even if these fledgling lovers do make it, are the two just destined to tire of each other? Monogamy is impossible in Signore & Signori, and that may be the most tragicomic aspect of its worldview.

It’s also several miles removed from the much gushier sentiments of A Man And A Woman, a film that believes powerfully in love’s ability to mend broken spirits and patch up old wounds. This is the story, remember, of two damaged romantics—she a script girl whose stuntman husband died in a freak accident, he a racer whose wife killed herself out of worry (yes, really) when he landed in the hospital after a major spin out. Their children go to the same boarding school, and one night they meet while dropping them off. He offers her a ride. She accepts. They flirt on the way and, despite an awkward moment in which she explains what happened to her dead hubby, they plan to see each other again. Is it pure masochism that would drive this grieving woman into the arms of another man who flirts with danger for a living? Are both of them looking for a substitute romance, something to fill the void in their lives? Such questions (and psychological concerns) bounce harmlessly off the pretty surfaces of this gorgeously filmed fluff.

Causing a stir at Cannes, A Man And A Woman would go on to become the first—and probably still the biggest—international success for the French director Claude Lelouch, who’s made about 40 movies since and is still working today. It proved especially popular in the States, where’d it’d occupy arthouse theaters for many weeks and win two Academy Awards (for Foreign Language Film and Original Screenplay). Very much a young man’s movie, flush with energy and enthusiasm, A Man And A Woman managed to take some of the spirit of the then-booming French New Wave—a dash of Godard, a pinch of Truffaut—and apply it to a love story so accessible (and sentimental) it could easily have been conceived by the Dream Factory. The film is all scenic nighttime drives, long walks on the beach, and breathy declarations of affection.

Throughout, Lelouch switches often between lush, seductive color and stark black and white. Does he do so to mark the change from indoors to outdoors? From past to present? From heartache to true love? There’s no consistent rationale for the use of one palette or another, and Lelouch later copped to the arbitrary nature of the film’s fluid aesthetic when he admitted to swapping in black-and-white film stock for purely budgetary reasons. In fact, there’s nothing especially deep about any of the choices the director makes here, which is probably why A Man And A Woman took something of a beating from more discerning contemporary critics. Its reputation has not improved with age: Former Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has called it the worst movie to ever win at Cannes. Even Roger Ebert, who could be lenient on shameless crowd-pleasers, called it “embarrassingly slick” and would, years later, label Lelouch “an inexhaustible middlebrow.” Coming as it did in the mid-’60s, when some of world cinema’s greatest auteurs were churning out masterpieces year to year, A Man And A Woman looked to many like a pseudo art film—pretty but vacant, cannibalizing then-popular techniques and applying them to a Hallmark-worthy love story.

Of course, whether Lelouch thought he was making art is debatable, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with stylish sentimentalism. A Man And A Woman has an often-lovely vibe, especially during scenes set in the front seat of an automobile. It helps that Lelouch cast two attractive, charismatic leads: exquisitely melancholic Anouk Aimée, of Fellini’s 8 1/2, and swaggering heartthrob Jean-Louis Trintignant, who’d win Best Actor at Cannes in 1969 for Z and most recently appeared in Michael Haneke’s Amour. But the two aren’t playing characters so much as empty romantic vessels, and the film’s pretensions of seriousness—of being a thoughtful portrait of a meaningful relationship—are entirely unconvincing. That Lelouch keeps swerving into longish detours of Trintignant’s character racing or training for a race is telling. He’s more interested in the automobiles than the people. His second most known picture may be “C’était Un Rendezvous,” a short he shot in 1976 in which he strapped a camera to a car speeding recklessly through the streets of Paris. For Lelouch, there’s nothing as romantic as driving really fast to see someone you love.

Pit A Man And A Woman and Signore & Signori against each other and it’s no contest: The latter is not only more entertaining, it’s also—in its bitter, exaggerated way—a more truthful film about relationships. Where Lelouch leans on comforting platitudes, staging a love affair between human mannequins, Germi pitilessly digs at the egos of his cheating, dissatisfied characters. The Cannes jury could have safely made Signore the sole winner, but perhaps there’s a stroke of genius in calling it a draw. Seen together, the two don’t just balance each other out, putting sappiness and cynicism in equilibrium. They also work in concert as a more complete vision of relationship life cycles. Watch A Man And A Woman first and its postcard emptiness works as a perfectly artificial prologue for the other movie, showing how unhappy marriages are often built on a foundation of play-pretend courtship. On the other hand, if you flop the order, Lelouch’s movie plays as a kind of rebuttal to Germi’s, suggesting that it’s possible to find love again after a disastrous relationship. Maybe the two films are too radically different to actually speak to each other. But together, they constitute a balanced diet—the sweet and sour of relationships, put in stark contrast. Loren was on to something there.

Did they deserve to win? Not so much. While I’d definitely take Signore & Signori over A Man And A Woman—or Alfie or Doctor Zhivago, which were also up for the prize—calling it the best of the competition would require overlooking John Frankenheimer’s nightmarish identity thriller Seconds, which came to Criterion this year. Reliable sources also indicate that Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight is a masterpiece; I’ve never seen it myself, in part because I’ve been waiting on a decent Region 1 release. (Though there are ways to see Chimes—and because it’s in English, none would require the services of a translator.) If anyone at the Criterion Collection is reading this, I have two titles to suggest for your spring release slate.

Next up: Palme Thursday returns in January with thoughts on Taxi Driver.