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, Lelouch 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 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.