"In Paris people make love . . . well, perhaps not better . . . but certainly more often. They do it any place, any time," says Maurice Chevalier at the beginning of Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon (1957). As he speaks these words in voice-over, we are treated to a montage of the people and sights of Paris, a montage filled with phallic symbols—an erect baguette, a soldier standing at attention with a ceremonial French flag projecting from a holster several feet out and up from his crotch, the Eiffel Tower, and finally a slow camera tilt up the Vendôme Column, at the top of which we find Chevalier.
Chevalier plays Claude Anet, a private detective who specializes in cases of marital infidelity, and he is in the process of photographing the wife of his latest client, Monsieur X (John McGiver), in a tryst with the notorious American playboy Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) at the Ritz Hotel on the other side of the Place Vendôme. When Anet presents photographic evidence of his wife's infidelity to his client, the client vows to go to the hotel that evening and shoot Flannagan in a crime passionel. In the next room, Anet's daughter Ariane (Audrey Hepburn), a cello student at the music conservatory, overhears this and, horrified, determines to save Flannagan.
Thus is set in motion a thoroughly delightful sex comedy that, although a commercial failure when released, today seems one of Wilder's warmest, least sardonic films and contains one of Audrey Hepburn's most charming and underappreciated performances. It is also one of Wilder's most subversive movies in the way it deals with sexual situations entirely obliquely, constantly suggesting sex while rarely referring to it openly and never showing it. This risqué, Continental attitude toward sex and the allusive style of telling a story that is, after all, largely about sex, has caused many critics to call Love in the Afternoon Wilder's valentine to Ernst Lubitsch.
Of course, Wilder's films often dealt covertly with sex, and for much of his career he was engaged in a running battle with censors over how directly he could present the sexual content of his movies. He actually managed to get away with quite a lot. The very first movie he directed, The Major and the Minor, was about a man in his thirties who believed he was in love with a 12-year old girl (although the viewer knew from the start that she was actually Ginger Rogers masquerading as a rather long-in-the-tooth 12-year old). Pedophilia, anyone? Double Indemnity featured Fred MacMurray as a sucker held in sexual thrall by the sluttish Barbara Stanwyck. Sunset Boulevard suggested that William Holden was being kept by Gloria Swanson. The Seven Year Itch showed nerdy, lecherous Tom Ewell driven to distraction by his sexy neighbor, Marilyn Monroe, while his wife and child were out of town for the summer. By the time of Some Like It Hot (transvestism), The Apartment (workplace sexual harassment), and Irma la Douce (prostitution), Wilder was growing ever bolder in the sexual implications of his plots.
In a scene that is a cunning variation on the conventions of French bedroom farce, Ariane saves Flannagan's life by changing places with Madame X and impersonating her when her husband bursts into the hotel room with a pistol. Flannagan slyly maneuvers Ariane into a passionate kiss during this scene, and the romantic and impressionable girl immediately falls in love with him, agreeing to return to the hotel room the next afternoon, Flannagan's last day in Paris. When she arrives, Flannagan lays on the full array of his tools of seduction—champagne, a gypsy orchestra playing romantic music, and plenty of smooth talk. Later the gypsies are seen tiptoeing from the room, and the next we see of Ariane, she is standing in front of the bathroom mirror combing her hair—Wilder's shorthand to let us know that sex has taken place.
One year later Ariane and her would-be boyfriend are at the opera (the opera being performed is Tristan und Isolde, and Franz Waxman, the composer of the music score for Love in the Afternoon, is conducting Wagner's ultra-romantic music) when she spots Flannagan in the audience. Contriving to encounter him in the lobby, she finds that at first he automatically turns on the seductive charm without even recognizing her. When he does remember her (she has never told him her name; he knows her only as "Thin Girl"), they arrange a standing date in his hotel room every afternoon for the two weeks Flannagan will be in Paris. What follows is a two-week long idyll that even includes a memorably romantic picnic in the country.
At the end of the two weeks, Ariane, who has led him to believe she is far more sexually experienced than she really is, shows reluctant willingness to play the seduction game by Flannagan's rules and allow him to leave in pursuit of his next conquest. "I know the rules . . . love and run. Everybody's happy, nobody gets hurt," she tells him wistfully. "Works out great all around." This is followed by the crucial scene in the movie.
As Ariane prepares to leave the hotel room after their last afternoon together, she finds she is missing one of her shoes. (Flannagan is lounging in his dressing gown, the shoe hidden in his pocket. If there was ever any doubt about what was going on at these afternoon dates, this should settle the question.) As they search for the shoe together, Flannagan tells her how perfect she is and asks her how many men have told her that. (We know the answer: just one.) At that moment the telephone rings—another of his conquests wanting to arrange an assignation. As Ariane hides out in the bedroom, she spots Flannagan's dictaphone and impulsively decides to wind him up. Using her father's case files for inspiration, she decides to answer Flannagan's question about her past lovers by concocting a fictitious love life in which she catalogues her imaginary lovers. When Flannagan later listens to the recording, he is at first amused and then overcome with jealousy. Whether this was Ariane's intention or not, she now has him on the hook, and it is inevitable that she will eventually land him, although not before many complications are worked through.
When it was released, Love in the Afternoon was not a commercial success, and this was attributed to the obvious age difference between Cooper and Hepburn. Even today many viewers find this unnerving. Yet nobody seemed to find it odd that Cooper's bride in High Noon (1952) was played by Grace Kelly, who was the same age as Hepburn. And there had been few complaints when Wilder cast Humphrey Bogart opposite Hepburn in Sabrina just three years earlier. (Bogart was actually two years older than Cooper.) Bogart's own wife at the time was Lauren Bacall, who was some 25 years his junior, and they are considered one of Hollywood's legendary couples, both onscreen and off.
It's true that Wilder wanted Cary Grant, who was nearly the same age as Cooper, to play Frank Flannagan but that Grant turned down the part because he thought he was too old to be paired with Hepburn. (Grant also turned down Roman Holiday and Sabrina for the same reason. After he married Dyan Cannon, who was eight years younger than Hepburn, he finally relented and agreed to play opposite Hepburn in 1963's Charade.) It's also true that, unlike Grant, Cooper looked every year of his age (56), although pains were clearly taken to downplay his raddled appearance with flattering camera angles and lighting and by avoiding close-ups. Tellingly, he does clearly show his age in one very unflattering close-up, a reaction shot when Chevalier tells him that Ariane is his daughter. Add to all this the fact that Hollywood has a long tradition of teaming older men with younger women (and also that there is psychobiological evidence to explain such mutual attraction: men tend to equate youth in women with fertility, while women tend to equate age in men with the stability and material resources necessary to maintain a family), and such a romantic pairing as Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn—although certainly not fashionable in today's more age-conscious world—doesn't seem entirely implausible.
In fact, Wilder deals proleptically with the issue of age disparity in Love in the Afternoon. At one point he has Flannagan accuse Ariane of being too young to behave so promiscuously, to which she responds by asking him if he isn't a bit too old to be playing Casanova. At another point, when Flannagan wonders why she is interested in a man as mature as himself, she tells him, "Actually, I don't much care for young men. Never did. I find them conceited, clumsy, and very unimaginative."
The question of age difference aside, both Cooper and Hepburn give outstanding performances. I've never been a big fan of Cooper, who often strikes me as a rather stiff actor of limited range. In Love in the Afternoon, for once he doesn't play the kind of laconic he-man, naive idealist, or romantic innocent he specialized in. His Frank Flannagan is purely and simply a serial philanderer—at one point Ariane's father refers to him as "a hit-and-run lover"—a shallow sensualist who uses his money to lure, seduce, and sexually exploit women. In this performance he redirects the geniality he seemed to project so effortlessly to the role of a cad, a compulsive Don Juan.
But near the end of the movie, his character undergoes a radical transformation. As he listens to that recording of her fictitious sex life that Ariane leaves him, you can see the change in him happening. In the course of one sequence, Flannagan goes from bemused detachment to frantic jealousy, and Cooper is very, very good at showing this rapid Jeckyll and Hyde-like transformation from suave seducer to lovesick nervous wreck. Wilder shows the aftermath of this change when Flannagan gets drunk with his gypsy orchestra, even working in a very funny bit of business with Flannagan and the gypsies passing a rolling liquor cart back and forth between the bedroom and the sitting room as they get more and more drunk.
Of all the charming performances the young Audrey Hepburn gave in the 1950s, this is one of the richest and most varied, and it is perhaps the most subtly comic. As the innocent Ariane in the first part of the movie, she does exactly what the audience expects from her. But after that kiss from Flannagan awakens her latent eroticism, we see a very different side of her from the expected one. She becomes, in a word, a minx. Her deviousness is entirely benign, but its purpose is unambiguously sexual: she deceives her father, her boy friend, and even Frank himself in order to create and prolong an erotic encounter. Like Frank, Ariane undergoes her own transformation—from a romantic, innocent girl to a sexually experienced young woman. I don't think anyone else but Wilder working in his Lubitsch-inspired mode could have made such a transformation seem so inoffensive when it involved such a cinematic idealization of innocence and chastity as Audrey Hepburn. He even coaxed Hepburn, who was the fashion icon of the 1950s, into making fun of her looks. While she and Cooper are searching for the missing shoe, she complains that her feet are too big (they were, and Hepburn was notoriously sensitive about it), adding, "I'm too thin and my ears stick out and my teeth are crooked and my neck is much too long." If you look closely, you can see that the divine Audrey is actually correct in this physical self-assessment, although I'm inclined to agree with Frank's response: "Maybe so, but I love the way it all hangs together."
Wilder never wrote and directed another movie quite like this one, which is perhaps why it is so seldom mentioned in considerations of his oeuvre as a director. Wilder's films are typically shot through with a self-professed cynicism, a belief that people basically act to further their own self-interest. Even so, he has frequently been criticized for failing to follow through with the harsh world view that informs his movies. David Thomson, for instance, complains that Wilder was a director who "knew how to sweeten his own sour pills but who time and again slipped out of the ugly position of offering tough medicine." The decision to work entirely in the gentler Lubitsch mode in Love in the Afternoon was one that served Wilder well by making the film immune to such criticism. Rather than dishing out his usual bitter cynicism, Wilder here assumes a detached and whimsical point of view. Like Lubitsch, he stands back and observes the participants in the game of love and sex, emphasizing the ritual of their romantic dance rather than dwelling on the dark side of human nature.
All in all, Love in the Afternoon is, for Wilder, a movie of rare grace and charm. It is a beautifully written film (the first of twelve he wrote with long-time collaborator I. A. L. Diamond), one packed with incident, clever plot turns, witty dialogue, and memorable details and bits of business—all of which slot together in precise, clockwork fashion. It is in a way a fairy tale, containing elements of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, even Beauty and the Beast. And it is a valentine to Francophiles everywhere, presenting a story that feels, and a movie that looks, like the romanticized images in the minds of those who love all things Gallic.