In modern cinema, the most definitive depiction of platonic love, of affection and understanding, is from that scene in "Lost in Translation" where Bill Murray whispers something in Scarlett Johansson's ear. Then their characters part ways, possibly forever. It is a simple frame that says so much about them and their relation, without saying too much. Two decades before "Lost in Translation", a similar frame occurred in cinema, in Louis Malle's heartfelt "Atlantic City". It portrayed a different set of people, in a relation that is very different in nature yet similar in depth. It too, says so much about the people involved without saying too much.
The scene involves a scintillating Susan Sarandon (as Sally) and a charming Burt Lancaster (Lou), also parting ways, possibly forever. Sally works as a waitress at a lobster bar, while training to be a blackjack dealer at a casino. She is the aspirational kind, who has escaped small town Canada, with dreams of living and working in Monaco. On the other hand, it is hard to tell what Lou does for a living. He seems to have retired from a nefarious past life, but still wants to hang on to whatever little glories it might have afforded him. Lou runs small-time numbers games as well as all kinds of errands for an old widow named Grace (a hilarious and energetic Kate Reid). All the while, he steals odd things from her and sells them for pocket change. It is hard to tell where his profession ends and his transgressions begin. Yet, he is not vile, which makes one almost imagine him making a lot more money, if he were not so nice or kind.
Amidst all their distractions and deviations, the film brings Sally and Lou together, thanks to chance and Lou's enterprise. They fall into some money, and also, supposedly in love.
Amidst Sally's predicaments, Lou seizes opportunity to help her and get closer to her. But he is not after her to take advantage of a distressed damsel. He seems to have a genuine affection for her. Every night, he stares at her from the darkness of his apartment window, while she stands at her window, semi-naked, washing herself of the Lobster smell of the day. He confesses this, and his affection, to her. To which, Sally reciprocates. Is she just toying with him? Her open intimacy with him defies this.
After this coming together, Lou calls himself her lover. She does not openly acknowledge this. When she discovers the money Lou has, she is brazen about how she wants it. But she doesn't scurry away at the first chance of having the money. She lingers on. Does she really like being with him? Or is she just trying to subtly sneak out? The movie does not clarify this, and there-in lies its beauty. She does eventually sneak out, while only taking some of the money, leading to a moment when Lou catches her leaving. They pretend normalcy, that Sally's stepping out to get breakfast. But their eyes can't conceal the truth. And they acknowledge their future. They don't say a lot, yet they do.
In "Lost in Translation", Sofia Coppola chose to place Murray and Johansson in the midst of bustling Tokyo, indicating their desertion within a crowd of people. In "Atlantic City", the great Louis Malle places Sally and Lou in a much more intimate albeit unfashionable setting - a motel room. Atlantic City is also no Tokyo, standing far from it's glitz and glamour. It is chock full of the rubble of construction, dingy apartment buildings, the winter gloom of the Atlantic coast, and the claustrophobia of casinos.
Despite that, we find consolation in Sally's departure and Lou's acceptance. We see them finding reasonable redemption. Eventually, we see them seek and find new beginnings. "Atlantic City" is a humbling portrayal of two people, who, despite being trapped in a bleak reality, find endearment and positivity.
"Atlantic City" is now streaming on the Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime Video.