Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud (Claude Sautet)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

"It's like Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate!" exclaims Alan Rudolph in my favorite line from Robert Altman's brilliant Hollywood satire The Player. Sadly, many studio films are actually greenlighted on the basis of puerile ideas like that one: just combine elements from two previous hits, and you'll have the suits salivating ("so it's The Gods Must Be Crazy with Goldie Hawn instead of a Coke bottle"). That sort of cross-pollination/regurgitation is less common on the arthouse circuit, and I doubt that Claude Sautet set out to make a movie that comes across as "Red meets The Remains of the Day"...but that's how I saw it, unfortunately, and Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud -- a brilliantly acted, austerely beautiful film -- suffers somewhat from the comparisons. As in Remains, its two protagonists feel deeply for one another, but have great difficulty expressing those feelings; as in Red, they seem romantically suited, but a considerable age gap effectively prevents their union (yes, it's yet another older man/younger woman tale). Michel Serrault and Emmanuelle Béart are magnificent as the title characters, feinting and dodging and parrying and thrusting (the last only metaphorically), and the film is never less than captivating, but ultimately it seems just a bit too familiar -- "been here, seen them," I found myself thinking at times. It also feels dramatically stunted, as if lacking an emotional center -- such as the transcendent coincidences of Kieslowski's film, say, or the exquisite agony of Ivory's (and of Sautet's previous work, the sublime Un Coeur en Hiver, also with Béart). Like its hapless characters, it's really a bit too restrained for its own good, but the performances alone make it well worth seeing, and Sautet's elegant, understated direction is a low-key treat. Warning: not a good date least not to judge from comments I heard couples exchanging on the way out.