Director Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon (1957) is an odd little romance. It’s a shade too long, and even though the thought of Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper together has its appeal, the gap in their ages is always a bit unsettling. Still, the film, which is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, offers an interesting perspective on infatuation and how it can pull an admirer out of reality.
Hepburn is Ariane, a college-aged cello player who lives in Paris with her father Claude (Maurice Chevalier), a private detective who specializes in marital infidelity. The young student is fascinated by the sensational aspects of Chevalier's cases, committing the contents of his files to memory on the sly. This is how she learns of wealthy American Frank Flannagan (Cooper), eternal bachelor and serial adulterer.
Ariane learns that an angry husband is on his way to a posh hotel to blast away his unfaithful wife and Frank. The pair are conducting an affair to the strains of Fascination, played by a Gypsy music ensemble hired for the afternoon tryst. She rushes to save him, standing in for the adulterous spouse. Though he is at first baffled by this mysterious girl who would risk her life for a stranger, her youthful charm and clear fascination with him draw him to her.
Hepburn, always prone to a little preening, does so more than usual as Ariane, but only in her scenes alone. When she has someone to play off of, she becomes more engaging.
She is sweet with Chevalier, who worries that he has corrupted his daughter with the shady aspects of his business, but who understands that she must have the freedom to make her own choices. He nudges her towards moral decisions, and Hepburn subtly balances the childishness in her that requires his intervention and the emerging awareness of adult life she is slowly beginning to engage in herself, rather than simply reading about it in her father's cases.
It is possible that Wilder was aware of the jarring difference in Cooper and Hepburn's ages. In the early scenes the actor is kept in the shadows, remaining a romantic, mysterious figure. Only Ariane is fully lit in her close-ups. It is when a connection has been made between the two that you finally see Frank's weathered face, and by then you are charmed by the idea of them as a pair. The young cellist's attraction to this older man is summed up in a perfect line: "He's got such an American face. Like a cowboy or Abraham Lincoln."
There are many little frustrations in Love in the Afternoon. Scenes that go on longer than they need to, explanations can drag on, but the film also has perfect moments of romantic suspense, like a scene at the opera where Ariane observes Frank from afar, on pins and needles, wondering if she will be able to attract his attention.
Cooper is odd as a ladies' man. His sexuality is so much more potent when he is shy and passive, a bit of hunky catnip for the Dietrichs and Oberons of the world. Hepburn is perfect for her role though. Ariane doesn't seem engaged with reality, she'll do foolish, dangerous things to pursue her romantic fantasies, and the actress seems to have an innate understanding of the tension and desire of infatuation that drives her.
The Blu-ray picture is nicely executed, clean, but with an appealing shimmer to it. The disc includes a trailer for the film.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.