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By Patricia McIvor
Spring is here, so it’s time to enjoy Love in the Afternoon (1957). Directed by Billy Wilder, this lighthearted romp will help to put a spring in your step this season.
Our story begins with Claude Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier), a Parisian private investigator hired to follow notorious American playboy Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) as he pursues a married woman. When the distraught husband threatens to kill the philandering Flannagan, Chavasse’s precocious daughter Ariane (Audrey Hepburn) takes it upon herself to warn him. This life-saving meeting leads to a series of afternoon rendezvous, during which Ariane pretends to be as worldly and blasé as Flannagan while falling hard for the inveterate womanizer.
Made almost sixty years ago, this film has aged particularly well thanks to director Billy Wilder’s light touch. The film opens with a charming montage of couples kissing in various locations, as Chevalier’s Chavasse explains that while Parisians may not love better than anyone else, they certainly love more often. This montage leads to one of the film’s running gags, in which an anonymous amorous couple is continually doused (but not discouraged) by a street-cleaning truck. Similar gags involving a hypervigilant dog and a loyal troop of gypsy musicians keep the mood upbeat and help maintain the impression of Paris as an almost whimsical love capital.
In addition to its comedic beats, the film’s themes and central conflict still resonate today. In our romantic leads, we recognize the same dilemma that modern lovers face: is it better to emulate the congenially detached Flannagan, or to remain heartbreakingly vulnerable like Ariane? Is love a fleeting inclination or a lifelong affliction? This quandary is also revealed in the film’s setting, as the famously romantic city of Paris is revealed to be something of an infidelity hotspot (at least according to Chavasse’s colorful case files).
As for the love story, it’s telling that Wilder leans more on the comedy than the romance. Despite the classic rom-com plot and Parisian setting, it’s still a little awkward watching 28-year-old Audrey Hepburn fall for 56-year-old Gary Cooper. At the time of its release, however, the film was merely following a successful Hollywood formula by pairing ingénue Hepburn with an older established male lead. Hepburn’s breakout role was opposite Gregory Peck (13 years older) in Roman Holiday (1953), and her follow-up role in Sabrina (1954) paired her with Humphrey Bogart (30 years older). This trend continued with Funny Face (1957), in which Hepburn stars opposite Fred Astaire (30 years older), and can even be seen as late as 1964’s My Fair Lady, which pairs Hepburn with Rex Harrison (21 years older).
Hepburn, of course, sparkles as Ariane, easily conveying her character’s myriad emotions with her large, expressive doe-eyes. Cooper unfortunately seems miscast, due to his age as well as his on-screen persona. It’s hard to buy Cooper, the ultimate white-hat straight-shooter, in a caddish role originally meant for man-about-town Cary Grant (who, interestingly, turned down the role because he thought he was too old). As always, Maurice Chevalier is the perfect guide to Paris and love, and went on to play a similar role shepherding lovers to their happily ever after in 1958’s Gigi.
What’s your favorite romantic comedy for springtime? Email me your recommendations at email@example.com.