A Film As A Memorial To A Democratic Everyday Life With Elegant Love, Sex, Individualism, Friendliness And Civility

Claude Sautet (to the right), Michel Serrault and Emmanuelle Beart on the set of “Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud”
Claude Sautet (to the right), Michel Serrault and Emmanuelle Beart on the set of “Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud”

Nelly’s husband after he lost his job. He became depressed because of his inability to keep his beautiful wife free from financial worries.

The “old man” Pierre Arnaud is trying to help Nelly in her tough money situation. Is he just a generous person or is he trying to engage her in relations with him? Or, is it his attraction to her makes him generous, and then what is the problem with being attracted to a younger woman? Can financial generosity be a way to express our attraction? And then what can be wrong with that? Eroticism can combine with morality too, not only with immorality. It can cling to the good also, not only to the evil. Arnaud has appeared like an angel (but nothing heavenly and nothing devilish in disinterestedness)

Here, we see Nelly in a moment of being introduced to Pierre Arnaud’s daughter and son in law; both are over-attentive to any hint of Arnaud’s possible involvement outside his “family”. Sautet is teasing the unconscious of the viewers by putting Nelly and Pierre into a visual unity by juxtaposing their bodies, as if, suggesting their future love for each other.

Appreciate Pierre’s daughter’s generic smile and her husband’s pedaled curiosity towards Nelly. Of course, they are wrong – Nelly is not planning to get any advantage over them, the eternal philistines of calculation.

The exchanges between Nelly and Arnaud are not of personal kind like in soap operas. They talk a lot and without any pomp about human and societal problems, but through these “abstractions” they start to establish with one another a kind of an intellectual (and behind it – emotional) rapport of those who listen to one another not necessarily agreeing with each other. Nelly and Pierre’s age difference helps them to discard their psychological defenses and feel relaxed with one another.

As a modern woman without a puritanical background Nelly has a relationship with a successful young publisher having business relations with Pierre Arnaud. Sexual desire is not a “sin”, nor a “vice”. Even if it’s not enough for a developed person, sometimes even happiness comes by in small change.

A love affair with an attractive and a passionate man of her age serves as a catalyst of her much deeper feelings for Pierre Arnaud. It’s because of an erotic and sexual self-realization with her lover that Nelly understood that she is in love with older man.

There is no contradiction between sexual and more-than sexual love. In people with developed psyches, these different forms of amour can, paradoxically, not only co-exist but even promote the final choice. Sautet in “Nelly” indirectly addresses the dogmatic prejudices which moralize from the position of super-ego, of power and control over life instead of understanding the complicated nature of human soul. For Sautet it’s freedom leads to love, not pathos of self-restriction.

Dolabella (legendary Michel Londsdale) is Pierre’s old associate, companion and rival in moneymaking. He is represented as a “creature“ from a previous, pre-freedom and, may be, even a future – post-freedom epoch. But he is a person who can appreciate not only the rejuvenating but sublime influence of Nelly’s presence on Arnaud.

Claude Sautet directs Michel Serrault and Emmanuelle Beart on the set. Their task is much more difficult than in a typical Hollywood film where human emotions are just a filling of the actions and situations, in order to give them a human aura. In Sautet’s film human emotions are a goal in itself – they have to stand on themselves in all its truthfulness, genuineness and meaning or prove their incompatibility with the truth of life (with truth of art). The film is not providing a sentimental resolution of Nelly-Pierre relationship but it is celebrating the realization of a psychological alchemy of their love.


Freedom is not free from everyday life bustles. But it is impossible without decency. Without the “gene” of decency people abuse and molest freedom – transform it into excuse to cheat, sneak and betray not only other people but their own humanity. “Nelly and Mr. Arnaud” (NMA) is a film about human decency not as a particular virtue, but as a gift of democratic way of life realized with aesthetic naturalness. Human relationships depicted in NMA are elegant not because they are elegant in a particular sense but because they are naturally, matter-of-factly decent whatever can happen. It is not that the protagonists of the film are exceptional human beings or role models for others, but they are exceptional in their refined and spontaneous humanness.

I don’t want to describe the film’s plot. But I cannot help but to mention again the beauty of the human relationships in this film, including the ones the director is obviously critical of. Only a mature (and always a fragile) democracy could create such people who care about others even when their interests and principles are contradicted/opposed. It’s a physical pleasure to observe the life of a people who are monumental because they are sincere and sublime. They are products of decades of European democracy that today is retreating, leaving life to the breed of petty craftsmen of calculation and manipulation. The main characters of the film belong to a category of aristocrats of emotional grace who are created by democracy, a category the very disappearance of which is symbolized by the fact that Claude Sautet is died (1924 – 2000), like Michel Serrault soon after (1928 – 2007), and that there are no anymore decent (substantial) roles for Emmanuelle Beart in cinema.

Sautet’s last film is a memorial to the best years of Western democracy as it’s imprinted on people’s private life, a democracy that today is only a nostalgic dream for all those who are reduced to fight for success or their “survival” with desperate intensity nobody can even reproach them for (they‘re put by the societal life in impossible situations). By watching the film we feel a sublime envy for those who got the chance to reach the condition of decency and elegance, while we today, in the 21st century, are doomed to fight for jobs with each other and other nations and beg our potential employers to give us a loaf of work and service in the army for our children.

“Nelly…” is a film-nostalgia, a smile through tears. It’s a film about our democratic past – about a period when decent behavior towards the people irradiating their dissimilarity was the only natural way to react. “Nelly” is something of a fairy-tale about the past amidst the prose of the present, about love amidst calculation, predatory marriages and desperate fight for success.

Posted on Dec 8 2014 –   “Nelly and Mr. Arnaud” (1995) by Claude Sautet  by Acting-Out Politics