In his funniest, most beautifully paced romantic comedy, Love in the Afternoon, which builds to one of his most soaring finales, Billy Wilder pays tribute to his idol, Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, Angel, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner). Gary Cooper, who had starred in Lubitsch’s Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, whose script Wilder co-authored, is perfectly, poignantly cast as Frank Flannagan, an American millionaire and playboy who annually visits Paris on his worldwide tour of irresponsible sex. This time, a suspicious husband has employed private detective Claude Chavasse to follow his wife, which leads to Flannagan’s hotel suite, except that Chavasse’s teenaged daughter, Ariane, a sheltered innocent, intervenes to keep Flannagan from being shot, replacing the unfaithful wife just prior to the latter’s husband’s snarling break-in. Pretending to be sexually precocious and as casual about sex as he, Ariane herself initiates something with Flannagan, whether romance or an affair, thanks to the production code’s heavily breathing down Wilder’s neck, it’s hard to say which. Ariane strings Frank along, inciting his jealousy with tales of her lovers drawn from her father’s files, but he later confesses, “I never got to first base with her.” By this time, he has fallen in love with her, as she already has fallen in love with him.
With a flower behind his ear, Cooper recalls his appearance in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco more than a quarter-century earlier; Frank’s lost youth—his dissolution, really—is duly pointed out to him, early on, by Ariane. The key to actor Cooper’s deftness is Frank’s confession that he never could resolve whether Ariane was as experienced as she claimed or just pulling his leg. Audrey Hepburn perhaps gives her finest performance as irresistible, vulnerable, motherless Ariane. Maurice Chevalier and John McGiver give the two best performances, though, as Chavasse, Ariane’s warm, protective father, and Chavasse’s cuckolded client.
Almost as dark and shadowy as one of Wilder’s noirs, this elegant black-and-white film hides Frank (and Cooper) from view, implying the mortality that patiently nibbles at everything we see.
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