Billy Wilder’s 1957 frothy May-December romance Love in the Afternoon was meant to serve as a throwback to Ernst Lubitsch’s elegant comedies of manners. Its Parisian setting and the casting of Maurice Chevalier (Merry Widow) and Gary Cooper (Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Design for Living) sought to further associate it with Lubitsch’s body of work. Though unpopular with members of the Catholic church, undersold by American distributor Allied Artists, and regarded by Wilder as a flop, many remain charmed by Love decades later. Some of that might have to do with composer Franz Waxman’s arrangements of “C’est si bon” and “Fascination,” along with Matty Malneck’s three original compositions for the film. The merit of these contributions certainly suggest why Love was the first picture screened in the course I’m taking this semester on Hollywood film scores.
However, I don’t think Audrey Hepburn’s presence can be overlooked. In email correspondence, my film score professor noted that Wilder optioned Claude Anet’s novel Ariane with Hepburn in mind. Indeed, Hepburn was the first actor cast for Love. He also speculates that Wilder cast Hepburn because of narrative parallels he saw between Ariane and Sabrina, which was released in 1954 and also focused on a romance between a young girl and an older American man.
I also think Hepburn’s continentalism is embedded in her screen persona, and informs how her paramour, American business magnate and playboy Frank Flannagan (Cooper), fetishizes the French music conservatory student to whom he’s attracted. Hepburn was Belgian by birth, maintained British citizenship, and survived an adolescence in Nazi-occupied Arnhem. Almie Rose speculates that these childhood traumas resulted in the actress’ life-long struggle with disordered eating and low self-esteem.
But such possible connections and lived experiences with war-time tragedy don’t seem to register for people like Frank Flannagan. He doesn’t know her name for much of the film, learning only her first initial and resorting to calling her “thin girl.” He also projects his stereotypical assumptions about French femininity onto his conquest. According to him, French girls never cry and treat life as little more than a series of erotic (or, during the Hayes Code, “romantic”) misadventures. In his mind, they probably also form cigarette smoke into perfect circles with their lovely mouths and subsist on a diet of champagne and baguettes. And what use would it be to counter that stereotype when Flannagan’s just between planes and hotel suites anyway? Just send him the bill and be done with it.
Thus, when they rendezvous in his hotel suite one afternoon, he has a traveling quartet play French jazz standard “C’est si bon.” Written in 1947 and originally recorded by German-Belgian artist Angèle Durand, the pop song grew in popularity before 1957 with cover versions from Eartha Kitt and Johnny Desmond. Indeed, the film itself seems to be framing French national identity through the use of “C’est si bon.” Chevalier narrates over a montage about romance in Paris. Waxman’s arrangement of “C’est si bon” is present throughout. Though modifications to tempo and instrumental color are applied as Chevalier considers different tableaux and social groups, the song is clearly identifiable and reaffirms that all French people are obsessed with love. These applications of “C’est si bon” seem to speak directly toward Theodor Adorno and Hans Eisler’s assertions about score’s relationship to geography and history in “Prejudices and Bad Habits,” an essay which outlines and seeks to rectify some of film music’s deplorable qualities. Citing the use of Dutch folk song as an example, Adorno and Eisler argue that when surrendered to the whims of an arranger, the use of music to suggest place is dubious. “Here music is used in much the same way as costumes or sets, but without as strong a characterizing effect” often resulting in compositional sameness.
Chavasse abides Flannagan’s stereotypical reduction of her culture’s attitudes toward femininity by pretending to be a femme fatale, despite her age and romantic inexperience. This seems to link the role of Chavasse to Hepburn’s characterization of Holly Golightly as a bucolic rube play-acting at being a New York party girl Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We seem to buy her cosmopolitanism because it’s delivered with a British accent, even if the whole production is a contrivance that appeals to men’s libidinous assumptions about elfin women of European lineage.
Chavasse learns of Flannagan’s reputation while her detective father Claude (Chevalier) is investigating him for a client who is convinced his wife is having an affair with him. Buying into cultural stereotypes about American males’ rugged individualist spirit, she takes to Flannagan and helps him out of a sticky situation with her father’s client. They meet cute and embark on a brief fling that blooms into something more upon his return to Paris a bit later. Chavasse is quick to discover and file her feelings away with clippings of his international romantic conquests. Flannagan only truly begins to reciprocate when he feels threatened by all of the experience she claims to have with a string of entirely fictional foreign conquests. Again, Hepburn’s precocious performance of Chavasse playing a sexpot must have informed the decision to cast her as Golightly.
When applying “Prejudices and Bad Habits” to Love, I find myself siding with Adorno and Eisler more than I’d expect. While I don’t take as given their belief that moving away from tonality and popular song form necessarily indicates a shift away from mass indoctrination and false consciousness, I think the application of these arrangements can be a bit oppressive. Apart from the gross cultural signification going on with “C’est si bon,” I find the use of the waltz “Fascination” to be extremely obtrusive and overused as a leitmotif signifying Chavasse and Flannagan’s romance. What’s more, I don’t buy it. Perhaps this has to do with my inability to perceive Hepburn and Cooper as having any romantic chemistry. Perhaps it’s because I think these are two people with whom I’d rather not spend 130 minutes in their company. More than that, I don’t buy that their hasty marriage (reported by Chevalier in voice-over at the film’s end, no doubt to appease those agitated Catholics) is a good match or a happy ending for the film. This old dude probably cheats on Ariane as soon as they move into their New York penthouse, if not on the plane ride across the pond.
Yet I think the film offers a few points to critique Hollywood cinema’s reliance on romantic classical music. Chavasse continuously rebuffs the advances of fellow conservatory student Michel, a clumsy and age-appropriate square with too much of a fondness for Richard Wagner for her daring yet refined tastes. Wagner’s music and its emphasis on endless music yet compositional unity was of course hugely influential on Hollywood film composers of this period. After a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde where Chavasse reunites with Flannagan, she comes home and hums “Fascination.” Her father takes note and inquires about the tune’s origin. Chavasse lies and says it’s from the opera. Her father knows her daughter is lying, as he remembers her humming the tune after a previous interlude with the man he later learns is Flannagan. Yet he smiles knowingly at his daughter and says he must have been mistaken, noting that composers steal from each other all the time. It could be argued that embedded within those moments is a metacommentary on Hollywood film score’s lack of originality.
There may even be a moment within the film’s score that abides by Adorno and Eisler’s preference toward dissonance. Flannagan and Chavasse’s first goodbye is scored by what is believed to be an original composition of Malneck’s “Ariane,” a melancholic musical figures which lacks any real melody or resolution. This seems to be the moment where Chavasse asserts her unrequited desire, or at least acknowledges it to herself. “Ariane” plays into the next scene, which shows her sulking in her bedroom following Flannagan’s departure. However, once her father returns home from work and discovers the boutonnière Chavasse took from Flannagan in the refrigerator, the score reiterates “Fascination” and thus potentially resolves Chavasse’s existential crisis.
Film music scholar Claudia Gorbman argues that one of classic Hollywood film music’s organizing principles is invisibility. This means that the technical apparatus of non-diegetic music must not be visible. One simple solution film productions employed to adhere to this principle was to show musicians playing music on-screen, and thus existing within the film’s diegesis. Love adheres to this in a number of ways, including having Flannagan’s hired musical ensemble play for him in his suite, as well as accompany him to a few humorous locales. It also accomplishes musical invisibility with Chavasse, but seems to have an ambivalent relationship with her identification as a cellist. Often, she forgets she’s a cello player, particularly as she gets swept up in her affair with Flannagan. The film ends with her leaving Paris with Flannagan without her cello. The last shot is of her father holding the cello at the train station as he watches his daughter ride off with her rakish paramour. While this is supposed to be a happy ending, I’d be a lot happier if she didn’t have to choose between having a boyfriend and nurturing her own artistic endeavors.