Tales of May-December romances can easily fall into cliched male fantasy: an attractive young woman falls in love with a much older man, rejuvenating him. Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, an extremely well done 1995 film directed and co-written by Claude Sautet, is not necessarily a May-December romance, and it certainly avoids cliche.
A retired, cultured judge, Pierre Arnaud (Michel Serrault), has decided to write his memoirs and hires a young woman, Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart), a friend of a friend, to be his secretary for the project. Nelly’s husband seems to have psychological problems and to be withdrawing from his marriage, and indeed from life itself. Arnaud’s marriage is likewise not in a particularly good state. Arnaud does not discourage Nelly from forming a romantic relationship with another man more or less her own age. The secondary plots do not distract from the main story line (the relationship between the title characters) but in fact enrich it.
Mr. Sautet won a Cesar award for best director, and Mr. Serrault won for best actor. Miss Beart gives quite a creditable performance. This is an elegant, theatrical film, and the unfussy directing does not get in the way. The tale is a sophisticated and touching exploration of the relationship between Nelly and Arnaud. The ending provides a sort of closure but leaves us wondering about the characters of Nelly and Arnaud and about their relationship.
There are, of course, many films about romantic or quasi-romantic love, and the French have a gift for them, but few are as deep as this one.