Friday, October 23, 2015

Friends (1971) & Paul and Michelle (1974)

          A teen-romance drama made in England, Friends is perhaps best known for its soundtrack, because Friends was the first movie for which pop star Elton John (and his perennial lyricist, Bernie Taupin) created a song score. The tunes aren’t especially memorable, but the melodic title number has the piano-driven intimacy of John’s early albums. As for the movie, it’s interesting if unremarkable. Directed by the versatile Lewis Gilbert, who also generated the original story, Friends depicts first love as a transformative experience. The young protagonists leave all traces of the adult world’s cynicism and disappointment behind while they create a private universe of companionship, affection, and, eventually, passion. Just as the characters idealize their own lives, Gilbert idealizes the characters, casting attractive young people with marginal acting skills because they make a pretty picture when photographed together. Accordingly, there’s an unavoidable veneer of superficiality to the whole enterprise, as well as a certain leering quality whenever Gilbert lingers on topless shots of his youthful leading lady.
          Set in France, Friends introduces viewers to 14-year-old Michelle Latour (Anicée Alvina) and 15-year-old Paul Harrison (Sean Bury). She’s an innocent dreamer ready for adventure, and he’s the spoiled son of a British businessman. Before long, they become friends and run away together to the French countryside, where they take up housekeeping in a small cottage. Paul gets work so they can pay bills, and the friends become lovers, resulting in a pregnancy. Meanwhile, investigators hired by Paul’s father track down the runaways. That’s about it for the plot, and if it seems as if the story lacks the conflict necessary for dramatic momentum, you’ve guessed correctly. Friends coasts by on glossy surfaces and musical montage sequences and romantic interludes. The movie is pleasant to watch, with a few lyrical passages, but the lack of narrative substance results in tedium, no matter how sweetly John sings on the soundtrack. Still, it’s easy to imagine people succumbing to the film’s slight charms, and Friends notched a Golden Globe nomination in the now-defunct category of Best English-Language Foreign Film.
          Unwilling to leave well enough alone, Gilbert and the original actors reunited for a sequel three years later. Without giving away the ending of the first picture, suffice to say that Michelle and Paul begin the sequel having not seen each other in three years. Despite objections from his father, Paul tracks Michelle down, only to learn that she’s living with a handsome and sensitive American pilot named Gary (Kier Dullea), who is almost 30. Nonetheless, Gary knows all about Paul—in fact, Gary’s helping to raise Paul’s child—so Gary does not object when Michelle says she wants to give her romance with Paul another try. Then it’s back to the same cottage from the first film, at which point Gilbert weaves between flashbacks and new scenes in which Michelle and Paul grapple with grown-up issues of careers, economics, and time management. The sequel has a bit more edge than the first picture, simply because the presence of romantic rivals creates problems, but the limitations of the actors (particularly Alvina) become even more evident the second time around.
          On the plus side, Alvina is lovely to behold in both films, and the respect with which Gilbert treats his characters’ unique relationship guides his storytelling choices, so both pictures are tender and thoughtful. Oddly enough, the ending of Paul and Michelle demands a sequel even more strongly than the ending of Friends did, though a third film never materialized.

Friends: FUNKY
Paul and Michelle: FUNKY

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