Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Worth Watching: Love Affair (1939)

Title: Love Affair
Director: Leo McCarey
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Michel (Charles Boyer) and Terry (Irene Dunne) fall in love on a cruise ship. He's a wealthy French playboy and dilettante; she's a singer. Both are already engaged to be married. Once they reach the U.S., they agree that if in six months they're both single, they'll meet on the 102nd floor of the Empire State building; Michel also wants to use this time to prove to Terry and to himself that he can work for a living. The six months pass, it looks as if the promised reunion will take place, but on her way towards meeting him Terry gets hit by a car. Unsure if she'll ever be able to walk again, she decides it's best not to contact Michel until she's more certain of her prognosis.

The film could have gone overboard with melodrama, but there's an intelligence and restraint throughout, much of it coming from Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne; they don't overact.

Dunne and Boyer in Love Affair

Dunne is a subtle actress; with a twitch of an eyebrow or a sidelong look, she can convey happiness, hope, or resignation. She has kind, knowing eyes, and looks sometimes like she's laughing inwardly at a private joke. Boyer can also act with depth and range; compare him during those careless flirtations at the start to what he's like in the final scene. Boyer and Dunne have chemistry, and there's also a warm friendliness between their characters that makes the romance sweeter.

The sweetest character is Michel's grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya), who gets many well-deserved hugs. She lives in Madeira, and when the cruise ship stops there, Michel and Terry visit her. It's a turning point in the film, with Terry seeing Michel as a doting grandson capable of devotion and tenderness, and Michel developing serious feelings towards Terry, who wins the approval of his grandmother.

Ouspenskaya in Love Affair

The romance between Terry and Michel shows different sides of love: pink champagne and kisses, warm domestic comforts, and - the part they need to work on – faith and trust in the face of hardship. Michel's grandmother, sweetheart that she is, does her part both intentionally and inadvertently in bringing them together.

They're blessed with two of the friendliest and most forgiving exes in movie history; breaking the engagements seems to go easily for them, unlike the car accident, injuries, and various plot contrivances that lead to painful misunderstandings.

Memorable sights and sounds
Charles Boyer's delicious accent and devilish eyebrows.

Michel's eyebrows

There's a beautiful shot of Dunne in a white dress and wide-brimmed hat standing in the chapel in Madeira; pale light slants down on her.

I also love the moment when she pushes open a glass door on her balcony, and it catches a reflection of The Empire State building. It was at the time the tallest building in the world.

Stand-out scenes
The following scenes are all bittersweet in some way.

There's Terry singing Plaisir d'Amour at the piano, as Michel's grandmother plays; the singing is meditative and enchanting. Michel studies Terry intently as she sings, at times glancing away from her and then back as if he can't help himself. He and his grandmother also exchange a couple of knowing looks. As the song goes on we hear something that sounds like a death knell in the distance, but is only the horn of the cruise ship calling the passengers back.

Terry also sings at a nightclub in a black dress and glimmering jacket. Sing, My Heart is the song; Dunne is classy, expressive, and intelligent, a joy to watch.
Pretend you're glad, my heart.
Although you're sad, my heart,
He mustn't know it.

Any mention of memorable scenes must include the final one, with its nuance and layers of emotion, and an ending that isn't unreservedly happy.

Dunne with shawl in Love Affair

Further thoughts
I've never seen the famous remake of this movie, An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. I'm not in any rush to either, after watching Love Affair.

*All images link back to their sources (Rottentomatoes; Wikipedia)