Mismatched lovers are a staple of romantic comedies, and romantic movies in general. Sometimes it's wealth or social station that divides the lovers; in Love in the Afternoon, it's age and experience. Audrey Hepburn plays Ariane, a young music student who becomes fascinated by a man she learns about from her private-detective father's files: Frank Flanagan (Gary Cooper), an older man who is distinguished by his wealth and his number of romantic "conquests" in every city and every continent. When an impulsive good deed puts Ariane in Flanagan's path, she begins to play a role that's totally unlike her real self, pretending to be as much of a cosmopolitan lover as Flanagan himself. But the question that she doesn't want to face is whether this pretense will make Flanagan fall truly in love with her or simply consider their relationship to be yet another casual affair.
The opening of the film is the best part, an amusing voiceover from Maurice Chevalier, who plays Ariane's father, describing how Paris is indeed the city of love. It sets the light and casual tone of the film... possibly all too well, as there ends up being very little substance to Love in the Afternoon. The film doesn't have much of a narrative or sense of dramatic tension, which is something that's necessary even in a comedy. In short, there's very little reason to keep watching. And at over two hours, it's substantially too long to carry itself on the strength of "let's just see what happens."
Despite the famous cast, the acting doesn't carry the film, either. Gary Cooper looks the part of the bored, wealthy businessman, but that's all: he comes across not as a great lover but as a cold pleasure-seeker. His performance goes through the motions, but he fails to infuse the character of Flanagan with any spark or charm. Hepburn, in turn, is perky and bright, but she seems to be forcing herself to turn on the charm; there's no sense of connection between the two main actors, and in the end their relationship (and the conclusion of the film) is implausible. The only actor who seems comfortable in his role is Maurice Chevalier, who delivers the only genuinely funny scenes in the film with his characterization of Ariane's private-detective father.
Love in the Afternoon has not aged well at all in the forty years since its 1957 release, with the film as a whole suffering from a lack of context for its story. It's impossible to identify with Ariane as a character, because we know too little about her circumstances. She's indeterminately young, lives with her father, and appears to be a music student, but it's impossible to know what that says about her in 1950s France. Similarly, we don't know whether Flanagan's playboy habits are considered morally wrong, mildly scandalous, or simply a wealthy bachelor's ordinary behavior. Even the central relationship of the film, the affair between Ariane and Flanagan, is dulled by this lack of context. There's no indication of what attracts Ariane to Flanagan in the first place, and we don't see the social consequences of their relationship. Is Ariane courting scandal by seeing him? Is Flanagan behaving out of the ordinary in becoming interested in her? The film depends too heavily on the viewer making the correct assumptions, so that when considered by itself as a story, Love in the Afternoon falls flat.
Warner's presentation of Love in the Afternoon has its good and bad points. On the good side, the 1.85:1 widescreen image is anamorphically enhanced, and the contrast of the black-and-white image is excellent, with good shading and detail visible.
Pulling down the ratings score are the presence of edge enhancement and a not-very-restored print. There's a moderate amount of noise in the image, and many picture flaws, ranging from speckles and flecks to actual scratches. These are quite noticeable and detract from the overall image quality.
The Dolby 1.0 mono track is satisfactory; as it's a dialogue-based movie, the dominance of the center channel doesn't detract at all from the effect. The soundtrack is free of the problems that often crop up in older movies, like distortion or muffling of the sound. Dialogue is clear and natural-sounding and is well-balanced with the music and background sounds.
The Love in the Afternoon DVD includes cast and crew biographies and a trailer for the film. The menu screens are attractively themed to the film while also being very straightforward and easy to use.
Love in the Afternoon just didn't work for me as a film. The pacing, the acting, the lack of an engaging narrative all conspired to leave me cold. If you're a particular fan of older movies in general or Cooper or Hepburn in particular, it's probably worth picking up the DVD as a rental; otherwise, I'd skip it.