"A Man and a Woman" made Claude Lelouch world-famous after he won the Palm d'Or. The French director is one of the most successful — and yet underrated — filmmakers of his generation.
It's nearly impossible for cinema to be any more "French" than Claude Lelouch. Yet Lelouch has had to fight harder for recognition than his contemporaries whose names are synonymous with the French New Wave.
Despite the fact that his career took off alongside those of other celebrated French directors such as François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean Luc Godard, many to this day exclude Claude Lelouch's name from the groundbreaking Nouvelle Vague movement of the 1960s – despite Lelouch international success.
Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard and many other names of the Nouvelle Vague represent high-brow cinema, while Lelouch was simply brushed off as entertainment. That may be a harsh indictment; but it would appear to have kept the French director young at heart: while he is busy celebrating his 80th birthday, many of his contemporaries, including Truffaut and Chabrol, have died.
Read more: French filmmaker Alain Resnais dies at 91
Lelouche never gained the same celebrity as New Wave legends Godard (left) and Truffaut (right)
'A Man and a Woman'
Lelouch's breakthrough came in 1966 when he won the Palme d'Or in Cannes for "A Man and a Woman." That success was followed one year later with an Academy Award. This marked a major triumph for the young director at the time.
As the title implies, the story deals with a relationship that develops between a man and a woman (played by Anouk Aimée und Jean-Louis Trintignant), who have both been widowed. They meet when they drop their children off at a boarding school in Normandy, and the love story unfolds from there.
The film would later go on, however, to incite a major controversy in French cinema, which would change the direction of Lelouch's career.
Early beginnings in experimental movies
Claude Lelouch started his career in film in 1960 when he filmed "Le propre de l'Homme" — a major flop that discouraged him from continuing with his craft. In a moment of despair, Lelouch destroyed all known copies of the movie.
This is why his second film, "In the Affirmative" from 1962, is considered to be his coming of age. The movie tells the story of a man who picks up a hitchhiker in his car. As the pair travel across northern France, the radio news repeatedly reports a news piece on a murderer who has escaped an insane asylum in the region known as "the Sadist." The audience has to keep guessing whether said "Sadist" is the driver of the car.
Such early black-and-white films certainly present Claude Lelouch in a Nouvelle Vague light. His style is unpretentious, playful even, using all the typical ingredients of the New Wave — such as disrupting the plot with side plots, making references to geopolitical events, and having fun with experimental narratives.
The reason why Lelouch is disregarded as a founding member of this decisive style of French cinema is the success of "A Man and a Woman" — and the controversy that arose out of it. The respected film critic Jean-Louis Comelli wrote that Lelouch's film was nothing but unsophisticated entertainment. His critique even ended with describing the film as "an illness for cinema, a cancer."
Comelli's rant changed everything for Claude Lelouch, who up to that point had regarded his work to be in line with the values of the Nouvelle Vague movement. Like all other Nouvelle Vague-directors, he, too, wrote, produced and directed his movies himself, distancing his works from financial incentives as the main motivator.
A new direction
After the Comelli affair, Lelouch did indeed focus on directing movies that would go on to become commercially successful. This is not to say, however, that his later works are any less interesting. In 1974, he directed "Marriage," which uncomfortably depicts broken dreams, fading love and the irreversible progression of time.
One year later, Claude Lelouch came out with his first whodunit, "Cat and Mouse," which established him as a master in the craft of writing and directing crime stories.
Throughout his career as a director, Lelouch remained faithful to experimental storytelling, using interesting camera angles, attention-grabbing subplots and painful narratives to convey his stories on film.
As arguably France's most-underrated director turns 80, he continues to produce movies; in 2017, Lelouch wrote and directed the comedy "Chacun sa vie et son intime conviction," starring Oscar-winning actor, Jean Dujardin ("The Artist").