June 11, 1984 12:00 PM

For sheer joy in movies, it’s hard to beat French director Claude Lelouch—his 1965 A Man and a Woman is one of the romantic classics. This story of the tragic real-life love affair between chanteuse Edith Piaf and boxer Marcel Cerdan is just as good. Cerdan, who briefly held the middleweight title, died in a 1949 plane crash—the starting point of the movie, which flashes back to the Piaf-Cerdan meeting and follows the course of a parallel love story between two ordinary French citizens who had a special love for both the boxer and the singer. Evelyne Bouix, a newcomer and just about a dead ringer for A Man and a Woman’s Anouk Aimée, plays both Piaf and the ordinary Frenchwoman, and her performances in the two roles brilliantly blend the saucy and the sublime. (Piaf’s music is rendered via recordings, though three new songs, written by Francis Lai and Charles Aznavour, are sung by the French rock singer Mama Bea.) Marcel Cerdan Jr. takes on the task of playing his own father. His gap-toothed look and gentle manner make him a heart stealer. The atmospherics are convincing too. The film roams from war-torn Europe to the grimy fight scene in New York, where Cerdan loses the middleweight title in a bout with Jake LaMotta. This is a grand kind of moviemaking that is every bit as heroic as the improbably melodramatic real events on which it’s based. Lelouch is preparing a sequel to A Man and a Woman to be titled Twenty Years After, with the original cast (Bouix will play Aimée’s grown-up daughter). Until it comes along, Edith and Marcel Will do—it’s a knockout by any measure. (In French with English subtitles; unrated)

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