[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Claude Lelouch’s latest film begins with the last five minutes or so of A Man and a Woman, the credits of Happy New Year appearing over them. As Anouk and Jean-Louis go into their spin and freezeframe clinch at the railway station, we cut to a closeup of several thoroughly disgusted thugs offering the Gallic version of the razzberry; the camera whips back, a fatuous administrative type beams that “this film has been my way of wishing you all Happy New Year,” and we see that it has just been shown to a group of convicts. To one who spent several months sitting on the other side of a lobby curtain feeling “Lub-a-dub” turn his brain to jelly, the prison context of the joke is delightfully apt.
It’s not the last time Lelouch will refer to his 1966 Cannes Festival prizewinner and unprecedented international hit, nor the last time someone in his new film aims a spitball M&W‘s way. Insofar as Happy New Year lays claim to any structure or discernible intention, it’s as an updated version of the theme (the film ends with another freezeframe of another couple and the caption “Paris 1973”). The idea seems to be that, as with Truffaut’s Two English Girls vis-à-vis Jules and Jim, the later movie should reflect the auteur’s seasoning as an artist and a man, the maturation of a theme, an attitude, a style. Lino Ventura, who recalls the Victor McLaglen of late-Thirties Fox films like Nancy Steele Is Missing, is paroled on New Year’s Eve 1972—as it turns out, so that he can lead the flics to his partner in, and the proceeds of, a complicated 1966 jewel robbery. All of the movie save the first and last quarter-hour or so (which is in black and white) consists of a flashback to the preparations for the heist and the parallel development of a mostly unconnected romantic relationship between Ventura and Françoise Fabian as the proprietress of an antique shop in the same block with his target (that part is in color). Even in ’66 Ventura was beginning to feel out of sorts and out of place, his physical presence and native shrewdness clashing with the décor and the lifestyle of Fabian’s intellectual coterie. In ’72-about-to-become-’73 he finds himself returning to a changed world wherein women enjoy the sexual and behavioral prerogatives of men and men have reluctantly begun to accept it or, in the case of one old copain, gone gay. The only constant remains friendship—at least, the one between Ventura and the pal that got away, the pal he doubted, the pal he used to put down half-seriously as his own intellectual inferior just as he himself is invited to chafe under the verbal assaults of Fabian’s acquaintances. Friendship; and, just maybe, love—on the possibility of which the film depends for most of its suspense and what passes for ambiguity in its ending.
All this gives Happy New Year more of the benefit of the doubt that the film and its maker may warrant. It’s really not a very good movie any way you look at it. In both ideas and the means of expression Lelouch is clearly deficient. He tends to announce intentions rather than develop resonances and any real sense of potentiality beyond mere openness to lucky accident. Part of the time he tells about an unlikely love match, part of the time he has a lame go at a caper movie, and part of the time he waits to be mistaken for a social satirist. Nowhere in the film is his lack of depth more conspicuous than in his running critique of “intellectuals”; Fabian’s friends may be shallow simps (she herself isn’t portrayed that way), but the film invites us to take them for the real thing and, in doing so, betrays either dishonesty or a pathetic wishfulness on the part of Lelouch the Thinker (I opt for the latter interpretation since Lelouch himself seems to be “intellectual,” not intellectual, like the butts of his joke). Ventura, who has an endearingly messed-up physog rather like a deflated football, and Fabian, who doesn’t look much like the Françoise Fabian of Ma Nuit chez Maud or Belle de jour, are nice together, but no nicer than we have a right to expect, minimally, from two such attractive performers. Lelouch the director just lets them be on screen together, and Lelouch and his co-writer give them only the most vapid things to say (there’s no indication that the characters are being willfully undercut; they simply don’t amount to much, and what little there is is to the players’ credit). Lelouch’s improvisational—as opposed to I-give-up—style comes near paying off only once, when a handheld camera follows Fabian during a long (several minutes), room-to-room take as she frantically redds up her apartment before being reunited with her man. But I’d still like to see some of those Lelouches that haven’t made it to Seattle during the last few years, especially Le Voyou (The Crook) with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Money Money Money with, among others, Lino Ventura.
HAPPY NEW YEAR (Bonne Année)
Direction: Claude Lelouch. Screenplay: Lelouch, Pierre Uytterhoeven. Cinematography: Lelouch, Jean Collomb. Music: Francis Lai.
The Players: Lino Ventura, Françoise Fabian, André Falcon.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson