What a Kiss Means
The April Fools (1969)
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Starring Catherine Deneuve and Jack Lemmon
I first saw this movie on a weeknight—I recall it as either a Monday or Tuesday night—in the “family” room, the room where the boys watched television. I have no idea where my brothers were. I was probably 14 when I saw this. I was interested in girls, but they flummoxed me. I knew from reading Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape what strange magic our bodies made for sex, and the idea of sexuality absolutely intrigued me. However, my shyness made the possibility of kissing a girl as unlikely as walking on the surface of the moon. Someone would do it, probably never me.
The April Fools is the story of the Frog and the Princess, with Lemmon playing the frog and Deneuve the princess. Lemmon’s character, Howard Brubaker, has just received a promotion, and with it an invitation to the upper class social scene, represented by a party thrown by his employer Ted Gunther, played by Peter Lawford (a member of the extended Rat Pack). Brubaker does not fit in, though he tries. He wears the wrong tie and cannot talk to anyone, especially not the women. He plays with the art. And Lemmon’s performance is pure nebbish—that’s his charm. Lemmon was entirely relatable to this shy 14 year old boy.
Deneuve’s character, named Catherine Gunther (the boss’s wife), is sad and no longer fits in a society built on attraction and platitude. Brubaker catches her eye because he is unpolished. Even though he can be inept, he is genuine. She is convinced to give him a try when they spend a night in the company of a quirky couple, the Greenlaws, played by Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer, who live in a castle located somewhere in New York City. She tells fortunes. He practices fencing. They inspire Catherine to seek out a more enduring love. She chooses Brubaker.
What a fairy tale. Deneuve is icily beautiful—as perfect as Lemmon is imperfect. She kisses Brubaker, and says it is the first time that she initiated a kiss. And she kisses him. The kissing in The April Fools is chaste—no open mouth osculation. I did no know that when I first saw it. I had stars in my eyes. If she would kiss him, maybe there is a chance for me. Not only does she kiss him, but in the span of 24 hours they forge something like a relationship—they run out of the party, have an adventure in the city, and after some brief contretemps, fly to Paris together.
It should be noted that both Brubaker and Catherine are married. They leave their spouses, and the rest of their world’s behind. Ted Gunther is a smoothie who hits on other women and depends on his wife’s willingness to ignore his behavior. Sally Kellerman (an early heartthrob because of her part in a Star Trek episode) plays Brubaker’s wife Phyllis as distant and focused on her own projects. She talks at, not with, her husband and rushes off the phone to whatever actually holds her interest.
These characters are flat, as are all of the secondary characters male and female.Phyllis is bulletproof, but she would have to be—there is no place for women in this world other than as objects of desire. Brubaker’s male compatriots are unhappy as well, leading lives of quiet and resigned desperation. The Gunther crowd is rich and chic; they make easy targets. They have high art pretensions and echo Tom Wolfe’s social critique of just this crowd. I know that now, at 14 they all just seemed like phonies: mean empty vessels masquerading as people.
All except for the magical Loy and Boyer, whose wealth does not stigmatize them so much as separate them from the herd. They spend the days asleep, because of all the bad things that happen in the sun. There is no explanation given for their presence, the same way that fairy godmothers have no explanation in fairy tales. I longed for quirky friends, even as a youth. My classmates talked about Happy Days and the Pittsburgh Pirates. I had other, more shadowy interests, and no one to share them with.
The April Fools implies that happiness derived from love is so rare that it will require a rule-breaking intercession to achieve it. What a strange foundation on which to build an idea of love, and at 14, that is what I was doing. And to think that a kiss ought to lead to a trip to Paris and a new life. How many kisses would come that did not bear that freight, that betrayed that wish?