The Unusual Suspects

Where were we? Ah, yes. I was driving up to L.A. on Cinco de Mayo to see the new Alain Resnais film, Private Fears in Public Places, at the Laemmle Music Hall. I was arriving early to get a good seat in this outmoded movie house subdivided into three cramped ill-shaped compartments. I was observing that everyone coming in was conspicuously older than me (even), and I was guessing that I was in the rare movie audience these days that might actually be able to remember who Alain Resnais is. I was taking a bathroom break beforehand, saving my place with a steepled program from the American Cinematheque picked up in the lobby, and returning to find that a solitary old lady with a barrel of popcorn and bucket of soda had installed herself in the seat right next to mine but had thankfully left my aisle seat vacant. I was then getting sucked into small talk about which cup holder was whose, about how much she was looking forward to seeing Waitress, and about how large a crowd this was for a Saturday matinee at the Music Hall. I was informing her that I had come up from San Diego especially for the occasion, which would account for at least one extra body, and was inquiring how she herself had chosen to see this particular film, and was hearing how she had just been driving down Wilshire and hadn't yet seen her weekly movie and had pulled over to find out what would be starting at around five o'clock and so here she was. And I was instantaneously revising my view of my fellow filmgoers, recasting them as people so much older than myself that they had had a considerably longer habit of going out to a movie theater and had possibly never acquired the knack of a newfangled VCR and had learned from experience that a French film -- any French film -- would be less likely than a Hollywood one to be an assault on senses and sensibilities. And maybe they didn't know Alain Resnais from Adam.

But you never can tell. Assumptions are often wrong, and appearances (as per their reputation) do deceive. And after all, if I needed that lesson pounded into my head one more time, I was there to see the latest work of the filmmaker who, among all filmmakers, sounded the deepest depths of the unknown and the unknowable; the one who most assiduously measured the distance between the outer surface and the inner infinitude. This latest film, made at the dignified old age of eighty-four, is surely not one of his very best, and still it was the very best film I had seen up to that point in the year, and four months later -- despite The Nanny Diaries, despite Rescue Dawn, despite Sicko, despite the Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, the Walter Salles, and the Oliver Schmitz segments of Paris, Je T'Aime, despite, above all, Golden Door, the one summer release about which I would have been most disposed to expatiate -- it remains so.

Its issue on DVD in early August perhaps gives me a little leave to try to say (after all this time) why it's so good, although not before I try to say why I did not really expect it to be. Up to and including Mélo in 1986 -- the director's eleventh feature film but his first stage adaptation, in fact his first literary adaptation of any type -- one of the highest compliments I could have paid him, higher even than his avoidance of literary adaptations, would have been that he never repeated himself. Since then, the stage adaptation, more particularly the stage adaptation that accentuates rather than disguises its theatricality, has become something of a new métier for him, a second career. (This should not give pause to the 99.9999 percent of the American populace who have never seen these.) With his most recent one, Not on the Lips three years ago, I was inclined to believe he had gone about as far in that direction as he could wisely go. In addition to which, not only is the new one yet another stage adaptation; it is the second such one, after Smoking/No Smoking, to have been taken from the shelf of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, a repetition within repetition. Unlike that previous one, which preserved the English setting while incongruously imposing the French language on it, Private Fears... has been resettled comfortably in France, in almost the same middle-class milieu as in Resnais's Same Old Song, with even the same apartment-hunting motif. (The opening scene in an artlessly partitioned two-bedroom matchbox seemed made-to-order for the artlessly partitioned Music Hall.) The return of the director's core repertory players -- Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi, André Dussollier, Lambert Wilson, irreproachable though each of them may be, and more than the equal of Bergman's troupe in their devotion to their leader, the first three on board for close to a quarter of a century -- did not forecast freshness, either. But so much for forebodings.

The best thing I can say about the film is one of the best things that can be said about any film, namely that the form matches, mirrors, expresses the content. The content, to attempt to separate it out, has to do with a half-dozen unmarried Parisians past their first youth -- the aforementioned four actors are supplemented by new recruits Laura Morante and Isabelle Carré, plus the scurrilously heard but never seen Claude Rich, from the long-ago Je T'Aime, Je T'Aime, bedridden offscreen -- all of whom are to one degree or another interconnected and yet ultimately, irremediably, profoundly isolated. (A true ensemble, a "tight" sextet, the players on view are uniformly superb, though Arditi's spotlighted monologue on his dead mother is the most affectingly emotional moment, and Dussollier gets the best laughs.) At least one of the interconnections, in a city the size of Paris, is unacceptably contrived: it would be very long odds indeed that the sister of a realtor would just happen, through an Internet dating service, to hook up with one of her brother's current clients. And the prim Christian who turns out to be a secret sexpot affords a rather crude illustration of the Resnaisian theme of deceptive surfaces. And some of the comedy, even if never quite as low as some of that in Smoking/No Smoking, lies flat. Quibbles aside, however, this is not so much a film of the individual trees as of the overall forest. The pattern. The tapestry. The big picture.

A viewer would not need to be exceptionally alert to notice the use of dividers, partitions, barriers within the wide-screen frame, tangible walls erected between people. But this visual conceit is not pushed past the point of plausibility -- not past the proper domain of interior design -- and the stylistic expression of the theme extends far beyond that. The conscious artificiality of the presentation -- the convoluted plot, the aloof comic tone, the succulent confectionary colors, the stagy lighting effects, the unrelenting studio snowfall, blanketing the streets, mantling the overcoats, serving as literal "curtains" between scenes, and at one point actually, surrealistically, coming indoors -- sits atop the deeper reality, the underlying truth, in much the same way as the human façade sits atop the hidden self. More than just fears, as the title has it, are private; pretty much the essential person is. The mental person, the sentimental person. (The title of the film in French, Coeurs, translates as Hearts, and if Claude Sautet had not already taken the title of A Heart in Winter, that one in plural would have gone well with the heavy snowfall, an intensification of the scattered flakes in Resnais's Love unto Death, there again serving as a transitional as well as a metaphorical device. We might note, too, that the musical composer, a veteran of American television primarily, The X-Files specifically, would appear to have been selected solely for his name: Mark Snow.) It is altogether remarkable, altogether magical, how these seemingly cardboard figures -- the philosophical bartender, the bitter drunk, the impatient fiancée, the desperate manhunter, the staid old bachelor, the false saint -- come to represent all of humanity; how the godlike overhead views of each of them at the end effectively take in the entire planet; how singleness can stand for tout le monde. Remarkable, at last, how something so light can have such weight.

Resnais, by inclination and practice, devises detective movies without crimes, and for that matter without detectives. As the de facto lead investigator, rounding up the unusual suspects, he never really gets to the bottom of anything, but always burrows below the surface, smack into the heart of the Human Condition. The deceptiveness of appearances is of course a commonplace in the run-of-the-mill detective movie, but Resnais makes it into something more than a mere platitude, more than a mere plot trick; he makes it into the main subject, the focal point, the compositional center, a virtual worldview. (In Last Year at Marienbad, in Je T'Aime, Je T'Aime, in Providence, in Life Is a Bed of Roses, in Smoking/No Smoking, sporadically in others, he has taken those deceptive appearances to an extreme, subverting the fundamental function of a camera and photographing things that are, within their own fictional framework, patently untrustworthy and untrue.) No filmmaker alive or dead attains a greater distance between the plot summary of a film and the actual sight of it. No filmmaker, to put a finer point on it, is a greater filmmaker. If he has lately settled into a bit of a rut, he continues tenaciously to widen it.

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