Love in the Afternoon (1957)

Billy Wilder

To borrow an adage my grandfather was fond of repeating, anything can be cured except for a broken heart. Despite this warning, cinema is my favorite prescription for anything that ails. Often, I’ve referred to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours as the perfect antidote to lifting one’s spirits after a horrible date since the film’s poor lead played by Griffin Dunne experiences unspeakably hellish and surprisingly hilarious misunderstandings over the course of one very bad night in New York. Yet another one of my favorite films to cure romantic ills is Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon.

A decidedly cynical yet irresistibly sophisticated romantic comedy—it’s the ideal film for women still weary from the lies told by wooing men-- especially when faced with any of the following on a sliding scale of misdeeds comprised of scoundrels whose eyes follow anything in a skirt even when in the company of another woman, sins of omission regarding men who flirt while neglecting to mention they’re the opposite of single, and worst of all, the revelations of either infidelity or the clichéd but ever-present (especially in this era of Viagra) over-the-hill philandering lothario.

How’s a woman to cope with a constant barrage of calculating manipulation? My remedy is taking great delight and comfort in the lovely, understated performance by Audrey Hepburn as the deceptively naïve, young Parisian girl Ariane Chavasse, who finds herself drawn to a notorious American playboy and decides to beat him at his own game—not through tacky promiscuity but by using intellectual strategy and mental manipulation of her own, taking a cue from right out of her lover’s playbook.

As the daughter of a respected private detective played by the always charming Maurice Chevalier, the motherless, precocious student Ariane finds her imagination working overtime when she’s relegated to practicing her cello in an adjoining room whenever her father discusses his findings with a constant parade of betrayed clients whose spouses have embarked on illicit affairs while making the most of France’s penchant for l’amour. When she learns that Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper), the international jet setting American businessman responsible for most of the marital carnage—not to mention whose dalliances keep her father in business—has become the intended target of an enraged, gun-toting, jealous husband, Ariane embarks on a secretive adventure to intervene in order to save the man’s life, only to lose her heart in the process.

While as far as romantic experience goes, Ariane is definitely a babe in the woods, she’s so familiar with Frank’s dossier that she knows his romantic scorecard by heart yet, much as she tries to prevent becoming ensnared by his smooth, well-rehearsed charms, she finds herself overwhelmed by the attention. And equally, Cooper’s Flannagan becomes utterly fascinated by the nameless waif who intervenes on his behalf, even more so when she refuses to give her name so as not to let Flannagan trace her back to her father’s home, leaving him no choice but to dub the mysterious beauty “Thin Girl.”

Although the two spend an unforgettable day together, as predicted, she’s completely devastated when he must leave Paris, but when he returns much later, Ariane has decided to keep up her mysterious charade by adopting a similarly promiscuous, philandering persona of her own, teasing the much older man with tales of her own “past lovers,” until it’s Flannagan who has ended up even more obsessed with the girl than she had been with him originally.

Intriguingly due to the moral code of the time: While it’s inferred that the two characters whose frequent romantic rendezvous in Flannagan’s Parisian hotel suite and idle dates aboard a boat in the water (in an homage to the impressionist painter Manet; Crowe 144) had been sexual in nature, due to threats from the Catholic church, IMDb reports that Wilder was forced to dub in dialogue indicating the contrary as Cooper is overheard stating, “I can’t get to first base with her” as well as an extra voice-over in the film’s concluding scene.

In an effort to craft his own cinematic version of the “sophisticated wit and style” which led to the term the “Lubitsch Touch,” invented by Wilder’s beloved Ninotchka and Shop Around the Corner writer/director Ernst Lubitsch, he embarked on a tremendously creative collaboration with long time writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond. And as the result of their nearly perfect effort, Love in the Afternoon, the overlooked gem boasts one of Hepburn’s greatest performances in a feminine role that would not only become quintessential to Wilder (she seems like an earlier version of McClaine’s character in The Apartment) but also seems to have had a major influence on writer/director and Wilder devotee Cameron Crowe.

Crowe who cited Jerry Maguire as his own Wilder homage in frequent interviews, seems to have drawn even greater inspiration for his Oscar nominated character Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson) in Almost Famous from Hepburn’s Thin Girl. In addition, he’s often shared the story of the now late Billy Wilder’s impressed reaction to Hudson’s memorable sequence illustrating Penny’s seriocomic heartache upon learning she was bartered in a poker game scene in Famous, making this parallel seem much stronger if you view Afternoon right before Famous. Additionally, the mutual respect the two share for each other is on excellent display in the nonfiction book I cited earlier, Cameron Crowe’s Conversations With Wilder.

Sadly, although the film always makes me recall the bittersweet and heartrending finale of Thin Girl running alongside Flannagan’s train until he makes the impulsive decision to pull her aboard (one of the most underrated romantic moments in movie history), most of the critical analysis given to the film concerns the staggering age difference from a far too old Cooper and his much, much younger love interest. Ironically, it’s rumored that Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice for the role but he’d turned the film down because of the age issue himself. And while I do feel the chemistry would’ve benefited from pairing Hepburn with someone a bit younger or who possesses equally fiery intensity (possibly like Gregory Peck whom she sizzled with in Roman Holiday or even—to name two of her other costars—William Holden or Henry Fonda), Cooper does a fine job. In fact, in her autobiography, Hepburn stated that Gary Cooper had lost none of his sex appeal with age. And admittedly, although I do cherish the film, some scenes are a bit cringe-worthy when you realize that Cooper looks—if not as old—than in the same genuine bracket as Chevalier (who portrays her father), which does hinder its believability slightly.

Still, in a way, it makes his performance as Flannagan seem all the more fragile and therefore irresistible when the shy, innocent, yet love-struck Thin Girl manages to beat the manipulative, sneaky, philandering man at his own game by knocking him off his feet, all with the power of a few well chosen words and of course, the incalculable dazzling charisma possessed by Audrey Hepburn herself. Thus in the end, it's the delicate Hepburn and not tough High Noon star Cooper who manages to score one for the heartsick ladies.

For-- as The Beach Boys sang in “I Get Around”-- unless you’re willing to pay the price, “It wouldn’t be right, to leave your best girl home now on Saturday night,” so henceforth, Thin Girl gets around… if only in her imagination and only with the best of intentions. And after all, is there a greater intention than love?