Nelly, a young Parisian working odd jobs, meets M. Arnaud, a much older retired businessman and judge, as she goes through a divorce, and the two learn about life and each other as she types up the manuscript of his memoirs.
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Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is one of those stereotypical French films in which an English-speaking audience, uninitiated in the ways of Francophone cinema, might complain that nothing much happens. Outwardly, this would seem to be the case. The opening of the film introduces us to Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart), a quiet, calm young woman married to Jérôme (Charles Berling), who hasn’t worked for a year and barely leaves their Parisian apartment. Nelly works odd jobs but confesses to her older mentor Jacqueline (Claire Nadeau) that they are six months behind on paying the rent. Coincidentally Jacqueline’s friend (and former lover) Mr Arnaud (Michel Serrault) learns of the debts and offers to clear them, no strings attached, no questions asked.
This act of generosity spurs Nelly to leave Jérôme. Until she can afford a sublet, Nelly stays with Jacqueline’s family, including her young children and Jacqueline’s much younger husband. When the intrigued Mr Arnaud offers Nelly the post of typing up his memoirs, she accepts. At first railing against her criticism, Mr Arnaud eventually trusts Nelly’s intuition about his memoir being a colonial judge in the Leeward Islands. As Nelly’s relationship with Mr Arnaud deepens, she discovers tiny mysteries trailing from his otherwise circumspect life. Who is Mr Dolabella and why does he visit Mr Arnaud monthly behind closed doors? Why is Mr Arnaud having his impressive book collection liquidated and dispersed? Why does Mr Arnaud’s estranged wife live in Geneva?
Nelly is a difficult character to fathom on film, as she is so calm and introspective, even her actions make her appeal mechanical and robotic, at least until Mr Arnaud brings out her passion (in an outburst when he goads her to anger), or her sparkle (when he takes her out to eat at a leading Parisian restaurant where she appears, Hepburn-like, in a little black dress). Béart is clearly the only actress able to pull this off, as her beatific eyes and stunning gaze hint at the complex workings in Nelly’s mind rather than showing her to be a dim bulb. Mr Arnaud is multi-layered and worldly, telling Nelly, “We all want love but when we find it, we pull back.” He also has a delightful streak of wry humor, such as telling her at the fancy restaurant, “You saved my life, so that ruled out McDonalds.”
The film defies expectations. Anyone expecting a prurient relationship between the 70-year-old Mr Arnaud and the youthful Nelly will be disappointed, though a vein of the sensual and subtle runs through the film that does not rule out the attraction. The film has much to say about age and our relationships with people much older and much younger than ourselves, and how to make the most of such relationships. The film also seems to make comments on the French nuclear family, for behind outward niceties, the picture is always more complex. For example, at a fairly typical birthday party for one of their children, Jacqueline must play perfect hostess even after the revelations of her faithless husband. Also it is telling that Nelly prepares the impeccable evening meal for Jérôme after work even though he has been in the apartment all day.
The film is not maudlin, and Mr Arnaud’s good health at the age of 70 may surprise some viewers, expecting the relationship with Nelly to blossom as his health worsens.
In short, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud is complex and subtle, an interesting character study of two people who meet by chance and enrich each other’s lives.