We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
What should a wealthy, worldly old man do when he’s smitten with a beautiful, independent, but underemployed young woman? Nothing, more or less, is the answer provided by Claude Sautet’s Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, one of those quiet, deliberate French films in which not very much happens. It’s precisely what doesn’t happen, however, that makes this austere film poignant.
Sautet has come into his own recently, some 45 years after he began his directing career. He has long made modest, hushed films about the French bourgeoisie, but only lately have they become something more than pleasant and well-crafted. Nelly is not as quietly convulsive as its stunning predecessor, Un Coeur en Hiver, but both films share the devastating sense of loss with which they conclude. A heart in winter is apparently what Sautet’s has become, and it’s generally agreed that this is the 72-year-old director’s most autobiographical film, emotionally if not narratively.
Nelly opens with Monsieur Arnaud (Michel Serrault), a well-dressed old man, sitting in a Paris cafe. As will gradually be revealed, Arnaud began his career as a magistrate in French Polynesia, but later became a successful businessman. (“We got rich on real estate,” he reminisces, “making Paris ugly.”) Long separated from his wife, who lives with another man in Geneva, Arnaud seldom sees his children. (One tiny joke in this Apple-infested movie is that Arnaud’s son works for Microsoft.) These days, he occupies himself with walks, cafes, and his memoirs. “Boredom is humiliating,” he muses.
Arnaud has a young counterpart in this film, but it’s not Nelly. Laid off from her publishing job, the young woman (Emmanuelle Béart, also at the center of Un Coeur en Hiver) works steadfastly at a variety of part-time tasks, from desktop publishing to staffing the counter at a neighborhood bakery. Nelly’s industriousness helps support her nearly inanimate husband Jérôme, who has seldom left their apartment since he lost his job almost a year before. Nelly is introduced to Arnaud at a cafe by a mutual friend, Jacqueline (Claire Nadeau), and he’s soon offering to pay her back rent. It’s an offer Nelly refuses, but only until she impulsively realizes how much accepting it will upset Jérôme.
As the two become friends, Arnaud offers Nelly a job typing his memoirs, a position that soon expands to that of editor and confidante. Nelly leaves Jérôme, but not to live in her wealthy patron’s roomy apartment. Instead, she rents a tiny studio and sublimates her new feelings for Arnaud into a romance with his publisher, Vincent (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a middle-aged playboy. Arnaud is not pleased by this development, which doesn’t entirely satisfy Nelly, either.
Scripted by Sautet with Jacques Fieschi and Yves Ullmann, Nelly is a portrait of lives so superficially comfortable that some might find them tiresome and irrelevant. (Indeed, some of Sautet’s earlier efforts were just that.) Unlike many European films that attract upscale American audiences, however, Nelly doesn’t merely exalt Old World ideals of gracious living and elegant dining. Arnaud and Nelly are as universal as anyone who’s ever thought twice about pursuing a powerful but potentially hazardous desire.
As his films have developed a deeper resonance, Sautet’s style has not changed: It’s still unobtrusive and unflashy, emphasizing acting and dialogue while underplaying directorial control. Although Nelly is clearly set in the contemporary Paris of digitized images and chain-store bakeries, it has a timeless feel. Subsequent events in the lives of Jacqueline and Jérôme gently mock the melodramatic repercussions of human entanglements, but Arnaud and Nelly’s near-miss romance retains the purity and intensity of a relationship never tested by fulfillment. Appropriately enough for the work of a 72-year old director, Nelly is a film both haunted by and reconciled to regret.
Having just moved from San Francisco to L.A. and enrolled in a Catholic high school, Sarah (Robin Tunney) faces a pagan variation on a timeless teenage dilemma: Should she try to ingratiate herself with the local aristocracy of randy football stars and snooty blondes, or should she join a coven? She chooses the latter path, but The Craft nonetheless resembles Clueless more than Rosemary’s Baby—and not just because director Andrew Fleming’s teen-witch flick follows the former’s soundtrack strategy of enlisting new acts to cover influential songs of earlier decades (Our Lady Peace does the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Heather Nova does Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” Juliana Hatfield does Marianne Faithfull’s “Witches Song,” and—most curiously—Love Spit Love does the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”).
Sarah, the other three wiccan wannabes sense, is a “natural witch,” and when she joins in their after-school sorcery, all four conjure what they want: Sarah transforms the jock casanova who told the whole school she was a “lousy lay” after she wouldn’t sleep with him into her obsessive lap dog; Bonnie (Neve Campbell) is freed from the painful burn scars on her back; Rochelle (Rachel True) gets revenge on the racist blonde who heckled her at the pool; Nancy (Fairuza Balk, still wearing her goth-hooker getup from in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) gets to move out of the trailer park.
Power tends to corrupt, though, and Sarah splits with the other three after they start to live up to their “bitches of Eastwick” tag. This leads to a final, special-effects confrontation between Nancy and Sarah, long tormented by demons whose influence can be seen in the attempted-suicide scars on her wrist. (Sarah apparently feels guilty about the fate of her mother, who died in childbirth; if this were really as common a phenomenon in contemporary America as it is in recent American movies, the World Health Organization would be investigating.)
Outfitted with a score by Graeme Revell (The Crow), The Craft does try to be spooky and disturbing in places, enlisting large quantities of snakes, spiders, roaches, and rats. It’s fundamentally a do-gooder’s parable, however, and Sarah means to be as powerful a natural force for good as Clueless’ Cher. She’s abetted by the good witch of Hollywood, who runs a store where the girls shoplift occult paraphernalia; this benign, French-accented sorceress tells Sarah that true witches “do unto others as you would have they do unto you”—which is not, strictly speaking, a pagan maxim.
Such a routine moral exemplifies what is ultimately so disappointing about The Craft, which at first promises a fresh vantage point on the travails of suburban adolescence. A threat to patriarchy for millennia, witches symbolize civilization’s fear of nature and female power, which is an interesting element to introduce into a football-worshiping Catholic high school. But Fleming and Peter Filardi’s script quickly abandons its critique of the school’s ruling caste and even attempts to make the viewer feel sorry for the young fascists the coven scourges with its spells.
Indeed, the film soon reveals itself as quite cozy with the class system: Nancy, who goes too far and must be subjugated, is “white trash,” while nice-girl Sarah lives a life as upscale as any of the school’s snobs. Where The Craft initially presents Sarah’s sorcery as a threat to the status quo, it soon reduces it to just a phase she’s going through.CP