By Scott Ross
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond began their razor-sharp collaboration with this utterly charming adaptation of the Claude Anet novel Ariane. Along with the team’s later, rueful 1971 movie of the Samuel Taylor farce Avanti!, Love in the Afternoon constitutes the most thoroughly Lubitschean of Wilder’s comic romances. The set-up (or as Wilder would call it, the “Wienie”) is a honey: Maurice Chevalier is a private detective specializing in marital infidelity, assiduously — and vainly — trying to guard his virginal daughter Ariane (Audrey Hepburn) from too much knowledge of the seamier aspects of his avocation. Naturally enough, the girl becomes involved with her father’s primary bete noir, a dissipated American roué (Gary Cooper) whom she begins meeting in the Parisian afternoons.
The “love” of the title is, bracingly for the movie’s period, really sex, and as long as it remains that way, Cooper is happy. Hepburn, of course, falls hard for her coeval, while maintaining a false soignée attitude that causes her intense emotional pain. While the movie holds the contour of a boulevard farce, that ache is its central concern; Love in the Afternoon may be the funniest romantic drama Billy Wilder ever made, a warm-up for Some Like it Hot and The Apartment.
Cooper, long past his sensual prime, still manages to conjure wispy echoes of his own history as the beautiful icon of 1930s stoicism, and the long sequence in which he listens to Hepburn’s voice on a recorder recounting her (wholly fictional) amorous past with an initial delight that turns into almost violent brooding is one of Wilder’s most memorable comic coups. Hepburn is her usual luminous self, veering from adolescent absorption (the old tune “Fascination” is the movie’s recurring melodic motif) to erotic and emotional enthrall with a delicacy and charm that can break your heart. Chevalier has his best-ever role as her solicitous father, and the supporting cast includes the peerless John McGavin as the adenoidal cuckold whose obsession with his wife’s unfaithfulness starts the whole ball of wax rolling.
The Wilder-Diamond screenplay is delicious, and includes one of their finest exchanges, when Chevalier asserts his need to keep the sexual excesses in his files from his daughter and Hepburn protests that her late mother knew what was in them:
Chevalier: Ariane! Your mother was a married woman!
Hepburn (Smiling ingenuously): I’m so glad!
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross