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Les uns et les autres

Les uns et les autres
Image/Les Films 13
1981 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 177 184 173 min. / Bolero, Within Memory / Street Date December 9, 2003 / 24.99
Starring Robert Hossein, Nicole Garcia, Geraldine Chaplin, Daniel Olbrychski, Jorge Donn, Rita Poelvoorde, Macha Méril, Evelyne Bouix, Raymond Pellegrin, Fanny Ardant, Alexandra Stewart, James Caan
Cinematography Jean Boffety
Production Designer Jean-Louis Povéda
Film Editors Sophie Bhaud, Hugues Darmois
Original Music Pierre Barouh, Francis Lai, Michel Legrand, Jean Yanne
Written, Produced, Directed by Claude Lelouch

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Even more ambitious than his Toute une vie, Le uns et les Autres is Claude LeLouch'es three-hour valentine to creative performing in dance and music. With the collaboration of at least four major composers and songwriters, this loose association of lives again spans a big chunk of the twentieth century, except this time the number of leading players swells from 2 to about twenty.


Russian ballet dancer Tatiana (Rita Poelvoorde) loses a competition to become her school's #1 ballerina, but marries Boris Itovich (Jorge Donn). The war blights their lives, but their son Sergei (Donn) eventually becomes a top dancer himself. Parisian music hall musicians Anne and Simon Meyer (Nicole Garcia and Robert Hossein) marry, only to be deported to a concentration camp. They cast their infant out to chance, and he grows up to be a lawyer (Hossein) who wonders where his son Patrick (Manuel Gélin) gets his musical ability. Big band leader Jack Glenn (James Caan) does USO duty while in the Army, but returns to his singer wife Suzan (Geraldine Chaplin). Their children Sara and Jason (Chaplin and Caan) become respectively a big pop singer and a film director. German piano virtuoso Karl Kremer (Daniel Olbrychski) plays for Hitler in 1938, which complicates his career as an orchestra conductor later in life. Evelyne (Evelyn Bouix) comes to a sorry end after taking many lovers in wartime Paris, including German officers; her daughter Edith (Bouix) returns to Paris and eventually tries a career in dancing. Somehow, the multiple threads of so many creative lives converge at a charity dance concert of Ravel's Bolero at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

This time around, Chabrol invests his multigenerational story with an epic sweep and instincts that want to invent a new kind of musical film. The movie is soaked in music and dance from one end to the other. It doesn't stop for MGM-style numbers but tries to integrate performances into the texture of the film. Recitals, auditions, rehearsals and even music video shoots are the content of the story - Glenn Miller clone 'Jack Glenn' represents America's contribution to the war when his band plays for a raucous victory party in a hilltop Parisian park. Among the celebrants are Père Antoine (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), the priest who raised the baby desperately abandoned on railroad tracks; and Evelyne, the joyous young country woman soon to be scourged and scapegoated as a collaborator.

People are separated by political issues such as East-West hostility and association with Naziism, and united by love of the performing arts. Like Edna Ferber on drugs, Lelouch creates an entire world of intersecting paths of groups and individuals marked by talent and destiny. Following the lead of the author of Cimmarron, Come and Get It, Showboat and Giant, Lelouch doesn't use coincidence to create melodramatic moments. One crucial mother & child reunion turns out mysteriously subdued instead of becoming a glorious overreaching moment.

Dramas that evoke the holocaust often step into an emotional trap that Le Uns et les Autres avoids completely. We can guess the details of Simon Meyer's fate, and Lelouch instead gives us the heroism of Meyer's terrifying attempt to save his son. The overall theme of the film emphasizes the fact that our lives and efforts have consequences we'll never know, and that our children and loved ones will probably not understand how we lived or what we did for them. Anne Meyer searches for her son all her life, only to be incapable of enjoying their reunion. Edith never knows her mother's love of life or her suffering. Tatiana loses her beloved son to politics, Karl loses his to an air raid.

The 177 minute running time doesn't jibe exactly with the IMDB's measure, but is far longer than the American release of the film, retitled Bolero. Even at this complete length, some story turns become confusing. Anne and Simon Meyer have a group of friends, performing artistes all, who filter down through the years both retired and active. The adult Robert Prat has his own circle of friends from his Algerian war experience (a rich but unhappy horse-breeder, a failed boxer, a convict) non-performers that don't seem to add to the same tapestry as the rest of the film - they connect with music and dance only tangentially. Arresting faces like Fanny Ardant appear, and we don't know exactly what they're doing there. We're told that Sharon Stone shows up on James Caan's arm, but I forgot to look for her. Impressive actress Alexandra Stewart is also on board, but I was too wrapped up in the story to pick her out.

The time jumps can be confusing, especially when some characters age and others do not. The German musician Karl Kremer, for instance, barely seems to age a day in 40 years, while Jack Glenn gains a limp and gray hair. And with several actors playing multiple roles, keeping them straight can also be a strain. The key WW2-related stories tend to have an emotional bite that the later, soapier events don't, and frankly, in the last third I got a little lost. Is James Caan's film-director character gay, and does that have any bearing on anything? Does Geraldine Chaplin's possible sickness connect with anything? Are these loose threads, or are there meanings that went over my head?

Les uns et les Autres has some great music and the main themes are good enough to bear repetition in multiple versions. The main tune appears to have lyrics that might be important, but they aren't translated in the subtitles along with the rest of the dialogue. 1 The mother and daughter versions of Geraldine Chaplin each sing up a storm, which I'm assuming is the result of very good dubbing. At one point Edith sees a street performer imitating her namesake Edith Piaf. To show my confusion, I confess to not knowing if the performer is supposed to be anonymous, or is one of Anne Meyer's less successful comrades from the old revue.

Lelouch gives a pleasing variety to Les uns et les Autres' musical 'passages'. We see several concerts and parts of big performances, including one played to an empty concert hall. Some of the performances might be comparable to music videos but none depend on editing to create a mood. The only (slightly) over-used effect is the recurrence of shots where the camera trucks around a singer or dancer at high speed, Brian de Palma -style. One music video (or musical film) in the process of filming has one of Anne's cohorts as the star, and young Edith as a supporting dancer, and appears to be shot in a warehouse for vehicles and props used earlier in the movie.

The production is staggering in its scale; it's hard to see how a film this gigantic could break even. I have to assume that Claude Lelouch's technical expertise helped create many impressive moments with a maximum of economy, but there are many, many reproductions of settings seen only for a few seconds, and large scenes played out in huge public spaces. Russia looks to have been doubled by Parisian locations, but there are several big scenes filmed in New York City.

Les uns et les Autres regains its footing and culminates very satisfactorily in a ten-minute extended performance of Bolero that wraps up the many story threads. Those cast members not present are covered in a touch-all-bases cutting scheme that shows some listening on the radio, even one from his jail cell. The interpretive dance by Jorge Donn & Co. is as hypnotic as Ravel's music, and provides an emotional center for the grandiose finish. Life goes on, but Art raises us to a higher level, the show seems to say; nobody has achieved their ultimate happiness but all are trying their best, and we viewers are the only ones in a position to appreciate the full scope of the higher drama. When the audience files out of the performance, few know each other, but to us they all seem related. Lelouch's sweeping story stays at a stylistic remove, but is all the more mature for steering clear of easy emotional peaks.  2

Image's disc from Les Films 13 looks beautiful, with a colorful enhanced transfer and crystal clear sound. I'll risk saying that the running time doesn't necessarily indicate a PAL conversion - the songs don't sound sped-up to me. At any rate, if it is a 24 frame film running it 25, I was pleasantly fooled. There's apparently a French television version that runs over an hour longer.  4

What's missing are extras, of which there are none. For both this picture and Toute une vie I'll have to do research ... I kept up with many of the big foreign films of the time but these are a big surprise. Even some text production notes would have been eagerly devoured.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Les uns et les autres rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 12, 2003


1. When our musicals are dubbed for foreign use, very often the songs are left just as they are in English with no subs. I'd think that would cripple the average musical movie ...

2. Several of the serious Oscar-contending dramas I've seen so far this season (no titles) are bloated with overlong nomination-bait 'emotional high points' clearly designed to make sure that the actors get noticed. Some movies have 3 or 4 too many scenes like this, obviously kept in because the name actors are the ones with the most power on the pictures - the stories suffer from multiple climaxes and endings that don't end so that more tearful reunions or agonizing moments can be shoehorned in. I just saw one soapy 2.5 hour Civil War story that would have been terrific if it wasn't over-packed with repetitious 'big moments' for its stars.

3. A note about French titles from John Kirk, 12/12/03:
Hi, Glenn - Literally, Les uns et les autres means "the ones and the others" or "some and the others." We don't have an exact equivalent in English that I can think of, but something like "these and those" or "some people and other ones" would be an approximation. I suppose the title refers to the film's being about this bunch of people for a while, then another bunch of people for a while.

Toute une vie is a lot easier to translate. It literally means "a whole life(time)." The title makes better sense in the French-release version, because the man and woman spend their whole lifetimes, literally, leading up to meeting each other. Then the plane crashes as soon as they meet, so their lifelong search is over, but so are their lives.

By the way, as you might have noticed in my orthography above, only the first word of a French title is capitalized. The only exceptions would be for proper names, such as Edith et Marcel or Les parapluies de Cherbourg. You might see even French people making the mistake of capitalizing title words like we do in English, but it is definitely not proper French. Au revoir, John

4. A note from Stefan Andersson, 12.16.03:
Hi Glenn -- found some info on French 2-DVD of Les uns et les autres. It ran for 250 minutes in five TV episodes. You'll find a consumer review with negative info on visual quality. Stefan


DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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