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A Little Romance (1979)

February 21st, 2008 · 6 Comments

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Synopsis
13-year-old Daniel (Thelonious Bernard) spends his day watching French dubbed versions of Robert Redford, Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall and Burt Reynolds move across the screen at a cinema in La Garenne. He lives alone with his father, a Paris cab driver who overcharges American tourists, but wastes most of it betting on horses. Daniel has developed his own statistical system for handicapping the races and by his own account, has “won” 850,000 francs.

During a class trip to the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, Daniel sneaks onto a movie set. He meets a 13-year-old American named Lauren (Diane Lane) whose nose is in a book while her social butterfly mother (Sally Kellerman) flirts with the director. Lauren’s French is as fluent as Daniel’s English, and they later bond over a shared loathing of existentialism. While Daniel has never had his IQ tested – nervous he’ll find out he’s “a genius, or something weird” – Lauren notifies him that she has an IQ of 167.

On their first date, the couple meets the charismatic Julius Edmond Santorin (Laurence Olivier). He treats them to lunch and when Lauren mentions her favorite poet is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the old man shares a Venetian legend that says if two lovers kiss on a gondola under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset as the bells of the campanile toll, they’ll love each other forever. The fleeting nature of Daniel and Lauren’s love becomes apparent when she learns that her family intends to move to Houston.

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Lauren wants to go to the Bridge of Sighs with Daniel before she leaves. Too young to travel to Italy alone, the teenagers use Julius as a chaperone. The old man is skilled at coming into money and helps them fund the trip as well. He claims to have once been a diplomatic attaché, but while on the trip, Daniel and Lauren discover this isn’t the truth. The authorities are alerted to Lauren’s disappearance and set out to detain her, but the couple is determined to have their kiss under the Bridge of Sighs.

Production history 
Director George Roy Hill had been given a novel written by French author Claude Klotz – alias “Patrick Couvin” – titled E=mc2, Mon Amour. The book was narrated in alternating chapters by a pair of 11-year old geniuses in love; a French boy obsessed with tough guys of the silver screen, and an American girl who sees the world through poetry. Hill gave the book to his daughter. She enjoyed it so much that Hill hired Allan Burns – who’d written for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda – to adapt a screenplay with him.

Hill had no desire to make a “romantic love story.” “I wanted to have two kids who had a romantic idea, who shared it, and who thus became close to each other. If there had been any sexual activity between them – and there probably was – I didn’t want to show it as the reason for their relationship.” While the novel had Daniel and Lauren passing through Venice on their way to a Greek isle, producer Bob Crawford gave Hill the idea of making a kiss under the Bridge of Sighs the prize of their adventure.

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Hill had seen a 12-year-old actress named Diane Lane performing in The Runaways at the Public Theater in New York. Lane had been doing theater since the age of 6 and was cast by Hill in what became her first film role. A Little Romance received a cold shoulder from critics when released in April 1979 and was anything but a hit at the box office. It wasn’t until it began showing up on cable and in video stores in the ‘80s that audiences began warming up to the film.

Opinion 
This is one of the definitive “sleeper” films of the 1970s. George Roy Hill – director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting – rolled the dice hoping audiences could accept a cinematic love affair between two 13-year-olds. While it doesn’t necessarily conform to reality at every turn, A Little Romance does bloom with a refreshing innocence and imagination, and succeeds at capturing the bittersweet feelings of being in love.

The film’s ability to endure lies in the emotional honesty of its script, which shuns melodrama to focus on the quirks and ideals of its uncommonly bright young characters. Thelonious Bernard (who only appeared in one other film after this one) and Diane Lane are perfectly cast, while Laurence Olivier brings both a dignity and mysteriousness to the film. Shooting on location in Paris, Verona, Venice and the resort town of Feltre gives the film a visual luster surpassed by few movie romances.

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Dezhda Mountz at DVD Verdict writes, “Surprisingly adult in its convictions and charming in its treatment of kid geniuses, A Little Romance is a movie that everyone can relate to. Despite the loving couple involved, there’s no sex or even open-mouthed kissing—a great antidote for parents whose kids want more adult fare but don’t want to bring home American Pie 2.”

“Lust is in the body, romance in the mind. I don’t know where I heard that, but it applies to the film … Instead being related to sex, the PG-rated story concentrates on a simple, direct love that transcends corporal attraction,” writes John J. Puccio at DVD Town.

Ryan Cracknell at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “Besides being entertaining in its own right, A Little Romance is intriguing considering that it was the launching pad for Lane’s career … Here, Lane is about as perfect as you might ask of an upper-class teenager. Like the rest of the film, she is smart, pretty and charming in the most classical of senses.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Coming of age · Museums and galleries · Road trip · Train · Unconventional romance

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Feb 22, 2008 at 7:28 am

    It has been years since I saw this film, probably since I was the age of the characters in it. But I always remember loving it when it would show up on TV.

  • 2 Chuck // Feb 22, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Again I haven’t seen the picture in question, but I needn’t see it to know that this is some of your best writing. Good show, and thanks for the recommendation, I’m always on the look-out for romantic films that don’t immediately irritate me.

  • 3 Hedwig // Feb 25, 2008 at 2:22 am

    I’ve never even heard of this film, but when I read your description of the book, it sounded vaguely familiar. I think I read it when I was eleven or twelve or so. Anyway, if I can find this movie somewhere, I’ll be sure to check it out, it sounds perfectly lovely (and I agree with Chuck, it inspired a great piece)

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Feb 25, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Moviezzz: I can’t imagine what this film looks like panned and scanned with the sides of the anamorphic frame chopped off on TV. I think it would be a good candidate to rediscover on DVD. You might see a different movie.

    Chuck: Thanks for your fantastic approbation. That really means a lot. If I ever finish my series “Chick Flicks For Guys,” I’ll have to remember to include this movie in it and notify you when I’m done.

    Hedwig: If you mean you’re working on a post about Romantic Films That Don’t Immediately Irritate You, I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for commenting!

  • 5 kunzang Dorji // Sep 2, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    The movie was dam cool….

  • 6 Gopal // Apr 13, 2009 at 9:47 am

    This movie is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Two lovers coming to terms with reality is always touching. In this case, the whole story has been narrated without a touch of unwanted things (especially sex). I saw the movie twice on the same day. It was just scintillating.

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