“Nelly and Mr. Arnaud” is a graciously nostalgic film about everyday life that is not boring or burdensome or hyped up by entertainment but lived according to democratic norms of civility, elegance and gracious and generous individualism. We see personal relationships of love and friendship as, simultaneously, dedicated and free, when people care about one another even in situations of separation, decisive disagreements or dead ends.

Sautet goes so admirably far when he depicts personal love as something so different from marriage as spirit is from flesh in traditional (including modern) cultures and even as grace is in relation to control over flesh and soul. In this sublime world of the exceptional Parisians, children of democratic way of life, sometimes the very decision to legitimize love through marriage (when, for example, Nelly’s lover proposes to formalize their ties and she perceives it as his attempt to subdue her freedom while she is in love with him) can be perceived as a miserable attempt to appropriate and possess what is supposed to be free every day and every minute. When Nelly refuses for the sake of their love, he uses the classic blackmail – either-or demand which puts Nelly through a terrible psychological torment of taking responsibility for their separation in spite of her wholehearted desire to be together. What for him is protection of their love, for her it is its destruction. But freedom and elegance win although not without a price. Of course, Sautet is not transforming the film into an anti-ideology of marriage – he just depicts love as inseparable from experience of freedom. It pains us to see how Nelly again and again calls her boyfriend and he doesn’t pick up the receiver while hearing her messages of a not-chained love on his answering machine.

Previous lovers or husbands and wives in the film are forever enamored by one another, and are not just on friendly terms, and they become genuine friends with the new partners of their previous loves, without a crumb of jealousy or envy. Sautet hints that it is communal spirit when “communal” doesn’t contradict the “individual”, what stimulates and refines love by not putting love relations into a box of artificial/false certainty.

We don’t see in this film any frivolity of love, but responsibility of most protagonists for their behavior suggested to them by democratic values, is not too difficult to keep because these people’s passions are free from fanatic obsessions and emotional extremism. They love because they are lovely and loving, not because they feel obliged to follow norms created by previous epochs. They are self-confident and skillful enough to create their own life.

For us living during the times when democracy is retreating into fight for survival (as a result of austerity attacks on human wellbeing) to watch Sautet’s film is a blissfully tormenting experience – we are in a way envious of these people’s happiness for living in a democracy when fight for love was not necessary, like also fight for prosperity. Sautet’s last film is a nostalgic smile through tears addressed to the best times of democratic life as it’s imprinted on people’s private relations.

The actors are able to express psychologically difficult combination of love and freedom, of love and individual grace, of love and individuality inside love, of love and personal dignity.

Claude Sautet and Michel Serrault (behind him)

The first meeting of Pierre Arnaud (Michel Serrault) with Nelly (Emanuelle Beart – on the right)

Monsieur Arnaud disinterestedly offers help to Nelly and, unexpectedly, the job of a literary secretary with an editor’s responsibilities.

Nelly and her lover who is pressing her to marry him putting their marriage as a condition for continuing their relationship, or else.

Pierre introducing Nelly, relationship with whom up to this point is purely platonic, to his wife he no longer lives with.

Like a character in Jean Cocteau‘s “Orpheus” looked unobserved at the sleeping Orpheus, Pierre is indulging in looking at Nelly while she was sleeping.

Posted on Nov 21 2013 –   Claude Sautet’s “Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud/Nelly and Mr. Arnaud” (1995) – A Life Which We, Europeans And Americans, Are Losing With A Speed Of Historical Catastrophe  by Acting-Out Politics