Three years after A Heart in Winter, Gallic maestro Claude Sautet comes up with another exquisitely woven tapestry of emotions that dare not speak their name in Nelly & Mr Arnaud. Marked by pointillist playing from Emmanuelle Beart and Michel Serrault, as a young woman and older man whose emotional orbits seem almost willfully out of synch, the movie is essentially an extended conversation whose delights can be savored at the dialogue and observational levels.
Beart plays Nelly, 25, who one day meets the emotionally remote but gentlemanly Arnaud (Serrault), a retired magistrate in his mid-60s who spontaneously offers her a loan to help out. Arnaud, who’s penning his memoirs, later offers Nelly work as a typist at his apartment office.
Meanwhile, she’s courted by Arnaud’s publisher, Vincent (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a relationship that increasingly irks Arnaud. Nelly rebels against Arnaud’s seeming arrogance and possessiveness but eventually returns to their working relationship and, after Vincent dumps her, their friendship.
By distilling the pair’s relationship into a series of conversations, mostly in Arnaud’s apartment, Sautet studiously avoids the expected course of a May-December romance. As in the best of his previous pics, Sautet is more interested in the what-could-have-happened than the what-actually-has.
Beart not only holds her own opposite Serrault in the dialogue exchanges but also proves surprisingly touching in the pic’s key emotional moments. Other perfs are well-rounded throughout, particularly Anglade’s ruthless charmer and Michael Lonsdale’s McGuffin-like mystery man from Arnaud’s past.