Lovers Like Us

 (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, France/Italy, 1975) 105 minutes


Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Producers: Raymond Danon, Jean-Luc Ormières
Screenplay: Jean-Paul Rappeneau,
  Élisabeth Rappeneau, Jean-Loup Dabadie
Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme, Antoine Roch
Editor: Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte
Music: Michel Legrand
Yves Montand (Martin)
Catherine Deneuve (Nelly)
Luigi Vannucchi (Vittori)
Tony Roberts (Alex Fox)
Bobo Lewis (Miss Mark)
Dana Wynter (Jessie Coutances)
Vernon Dobtcheff (Coleman)

Reviews and notes

An homage to classic Hollywood screwball comedies, only with French stars (Catherine Deneuve and Yves Montand) and set largely in South America. Deneuve departs from her usual cool persona to play a manic Frenchwoman in Venezuela who is on the run from her possessive Italian husband (Luigi Vannucchi), and who proceeds to turn the life of a reclusive perfume maker (Montand) upside-down. In France, Le Sauvage received four César nominations for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Direction. Gene Moskowitz of Variety felt that the film's direction was perhaps too leisurely, but he admired the performances: "Montand is in good form. Bearded and witty, he is a good foil to Deneuve's attempt to let her hair down from her usual cool roles." He added, "Supporting players are helpful, especially Luigi Vannucchi as the bombastic fiancé and Tony Roberts as the hapless victim of the stolen, expensive painting. Top technical credits and production dress are added plus factors.”
- James Steffen, TCM.

The prime quality of Le Sauvage is its script. With a mis-matched pairing, Jean-Paul Rappeneau is inspired by some of the important figures in film comedy. From Frank Capra (It Happened One Night) to John Huston (The African Queen) via Howard Hawks (Bringing up Baby), characters in conflict have always been a great source of inspiration. It leads to gags, provokes laughter and feeds the narrative with obstacles. In overcoming their conflict, the characters move from their personal needs towards a common goal. In Le Sauvage, Nelly and Martin are both selfish but strong characters. Through a multitude of conflicts, they will finally understand each other and find common ground. In this way, the story is particularly rich: as soon as Martin thinks he has solved a problem, a new one appears. Completely inspired by his subject, Jean-Paul Rappeneau proves his formidable talent as a creator of these situations.

But for Le Sauvage to work so well, it’s not just because of a succession of conflicts. The public's identification with these two heroes works because it is based on realistic and dramatic assumption. Early in Le Sauvage, Nelly flees marriage and a conventional life. She wants to go back to France. For his part, Martin is a misanthropist and wants to be left alone. Rappeneau constructs his narrative as a drama around their meeting. The deep aspirations of Nelly and Martin are basically not that comical, and they both seem very unhappy. A narrative such as this wouldn’t feel out of place in a Téchiné or Bergman film! Rappeneau creates his characters in this way to give them more depth and realism. From the very first scene, the situation is shown clearly: we see Nelly sitting in a restaurant. Her marriage with Vittori is announced with great pomp. Enclosed in an eloquent silence, she undergoes this mock feast and seems totally distant. Faced with her sadness, the audience is immediately taken with a feeling of empathy for this poor wretch. And when the party is in full swing, everyone wants to dance with the future bride who is then tossed from arm to arm like a rag doll. Subsequently, Nelly shows a completely different side, that of a strong and determined woman. Then that of a real "bitch"! With this introduction, the characterization work developed by the screenwriters is such that everything for Nelly is then forgiven. While Martin is opposed to the whims of the beautiful blonde, showing anger and incomprehension, the audience understands and enjoys her behaviour. The comedic cogs then work wonderfully.

The plot of Le Sauvage may seem unbalanced in its construction. Unity of place (considered sacrosanct) is not respected and the third act happens in a flash. The action takes place in four different places: Caracas, on the island, New York and the French countryside. The first two places cited serve as scenery for the greater part of the narrative. If the scenes in Caracas serve as setting for the first act, the main part of the story takes place on the island. It is in this paradise and uninhabited environment that our leads will develop their relationship (the comedy then takes a John Huston bent evoking both The African Queen and Heaven Knows, Mr Allison). Jean-Paul Rappeneau knows that the relationship between Nelly and Martin will find its rhythm and meaning on this island. He therefore maximises this part of the plot and reduces the others, in particular the final act. In 2011, with the re-release of this film in cinemas, he accentuated this part of the story by reducing the first act (he cut some scenes in Caracas). In this new version, action on the island takes on more importance, to the detriment of the last act. The latter takes place in New York, Caracas and France. It is a little fast and somewhat phoned in. It would certainly have been better to have the film in one place but the task wasn’t so simple for Jean-Paul Rappeneau: the famous scene that Montand demanded in New York having been cut, it was necessary to write and perform a new finale with a particularly tight deadline. If this quick ending is disappointing to some, it isn’t that jarring and doesn’t detract from the main qualities of the plot.

Among these qualities, it’s worth mentioning its playful aspect and in particular all the hijinks built around the Toulouse-Lautrec painting. This treasure by the French painter belongs to Nelly’s former boss and lover (played by Tony Roberts). Nelly steals it, hopes to take advantage of it and runs away. She tries to sell it and drags Martin into her escapade. She then scuttles a boat and tries to save the painting in the shipwreck. In the end, the picture finishes at the feet of its owner in a totally burlesque scene. In passing it from hand to hand, this painting marks certain scenes and gives a thread to the film. For the record, it is interesting to recall that this Lautrec painting is "La Goulue (The Glutton) arriving at the Moulin Rouge". This "Goulue" is Louise Weber, a Cancan dancer, loved by men and who was known to devour life fully (hence her nickname). It is hardly surprising that Jean-Paul Rappeneau chose this portrait to accompany Nelly’s character. And given the importance of the role of Nelly, he would have almost been fairer to call the film La Goulue than Le Sauvage...

Finally, while the plot’s construction proves to be very rich, Jean-Loup Dabadie’s dialogue also deserves praise. Both drily humourous and fast, it’s perfectly adapted to the speed of the Rappeneau’s cinema and to Catherine Deneuve’s rat-a-tat delivery. In juxtaposition with some of the scenes, the dialogue sometimes comes across as surreal. With its surprising repartee, Nelly creates a permanent distance towards Martin. An often comic shift, always charming and helping to build her character. For while Nelly doesn’t stop running to escape her pursuers, she also uses language to escape reality. By constantly avoiding answering Martin's questions, she maintains that forward flight which characterizes her so much. Jean-Loup Dabadie creates dialogue here that is both subtle and effective. A year later, he would again demonstrate this sensitivity alongside Yves Robert in Un éléphant ça trompe énormément.
- François-Olivier Lefèvre, dvdclassik.com, 8 novembre 2011, translated into English by Chris Hormann.

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