Claude Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier) is a Parisian private detective with a speciality in divorce cases, in fact he has made his professional reputation with them. He can tell any husband or wife if their spouse is cheating on them with pinpoint accuracy, not bad in the city which prides itself on the act and promotion of love, which can spring up anywhere, and likewise be pursued. His latest project is Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper), a wealthy businessman who happens to be a serial womaniser, but what Frank doesn't know is that the husband of his latest conquest has bought a gun and plans to end his dalliances with some finality. But Claude's daughter Arianne (Audrey Hepburn) does know…
Hepburn made a couple of movies with director Billy Wilder, one was Sabrina and the other was this, both of which saw her romantic interest played by a man decades her senior. Cooper was pulled up for taking this role here, and it disappointed him enormously: he was used to being one of the most popular stars for some time, and to be told he was past it was not what he wanted to hear (understandably). Though he was still in his fifties, he had started to appear a lot older thanks to the declining health that would see him pass away a mere four years later, a terribly sad ending for one of the most glowing careers in Hollywood, and for one of its most popular, "nice guy" leading men.
Yet no matter how ravaged by his encroaching condition Coop was growing, you could believe this middle-aged playboy he was essaying would encapsulate all the longings of a simple cellist that Hepburn played as an innocent trying to be worldly and succeeding with Frank, giving her a confidence boost whenever she is with him. It's quite sweet that she should be so infatuated with the millionaire and the lies she spins once she has rescued him from the enraged husband (John McGiver) are as much a fantasy as the idea that he would be happy to settle down with her and give up his "girl in every port" lifestyle to devote his existence to her. Call it Warren Beatty/Annette Bening syndrome.
Except that resulted in a very happy marriage, and there were flaws here in what should have been a naughty little comedy as Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond imagined it which were nothing to do with their plans. The censor of the day, around ten years from losing its control over the output of the movies, insisted the quite plainly indicated afternoons that Arianne and Frank were spending together were not sexual ones, which resulted in at least a couple of clumsy edits in voiceover added later to soothe the fears of anyone too conservative to accept that in Paris, there may be unmarried couples having sex. Completely ridiculous to modern eyes, these concessions may be easily overlooked (and blatantly contradict what we can see), but they do rankle.
What was better was Hepburn's portrayal of a romantic soul in a world of cynics, who despite evidence that she may be wrong about the people she shares the planet with has convinced herself there is such a thing as true love in this life and she is going to pursue it no matter what. She reads the case files of her father, who she shares an apartment with, and is aghast that there is such wickedness on her doorstep, but aside from this titillation it strengthens her resolve to find a man who she can be amorous with in a swooning manner, even if she must adopt a serious, would-be sophisticated approach. Needless to say, Hepburn was in her element as a bruised optimist and was at her most beautiful in black and white into the bargain: she also sold the relationship with the Cooper character. Maybe it was too leisurely in getting to where it wanted to go, and there was too little Chevalier to boot, but Love in the Afternoon illustrated what sheer star power can do for material such as this.