Monday, October 09, 2006

New Film: Private Fears in Public Places

Constituting what may well be his finest work in twenty years, Alain Resnais' masterful Private Fears in Public Places (Cœurs) showcases a greater integration of form and content than has been the norm in the legendary Left Bank director's latter-day, theatrically-inflected cinema (of which his supreme Mélo [1986] and the more recent Not on the Lips [2003] are paradigmatic). While an element of the stage returns in this reconfiguration of a play of the same name, particularly in those interior scenes filmed from an overhead position where the camera passes above the walls from one room to the next, Resnais has invested even these passages with newfound meaning: in this instance, as the director makes clear in one of the film's ultimate sequences, the said high camera location connotes a god's-eye view. Indeed, rare within Resnais' corpus, Private Fears in Public Places explicitly engages Christian belief, as one of the film's multiple protagonists, Charlotte (Resnais axiom Sabine Azéma) confesses a devout religiosity. She lends co-worker Thierry (André Dussollier) a videocassette of Christian music, which the latter accepts only because of his desire for the red-head. As it happens, following the glibly contrived video, of which we see various fragments, Thierry discovers soft core porn at the conclusion of the tape. Convinced that it is the same Charlotte, he hastens to borrow a second tape. (These tapes become the film’s on-going comic relief.)

Thierry lives with his sister Gaëlle (the much younger Isabelle Carré), whom he thinks goes out partying with her friends every night. Commensurate with the film's disclosure of secrets, we soon learn she is looking for love, which she finds in lay-about Dan (Lambert Wilson) after the latter breaks up with his fianceé, Nicole (Laura Morante), whom we initially meet in the first scene of the film, where she is shown a ridiculous apartment by realtor Thierry. Rather than looking for the apartment himself -- or a job -- Dan spends his evenings in a bar tended by Lionel (Pierre Arditi).

To complete the film's interlocking series of relations, Lionel seeks evening care for his elderly father (who Resnais never shows on-screen, though do see the foot of his bed and often hear his scatological rants). This leads us back to Charlotte, who according to her faith has charitably agreed to substitute for Lionel’s usual care-giver. Lionel (in possession of his own secret that has led to the estrangement that is evident between he and his father) inquires as to whether Charlotte's faith brings her peace, and after paging through her Bible, where the forgiveness is in her religion. She responds that it is in the New Testament, and later tells him that she, like him, doesn't believe much in hell, though she does believe we all have the Devil inside us. This is certainly the case with Charlotte herself, though Resnais does not simply reduce his picture to a critique of Christian hypocrisy. In fact, we see in one of her final gestures that she, no less than the lascivious Thierry or the drunkard Dan is fighting this very same Demon, which importantly she is able to do successfully. If Lionel claims that he has never been able to accept this stuff, he still packs a New Testament when he departs late in the film, giving one a sense of the power that these question might have for the director himself as he nears his eighty-fifth year.

Yet, religious curiosity is less ubiquitous in Private Fears in Public Places than is another hallmark of later life: loneliness. This existential condition in fact extends from the film's thirtysomethings, to Lionel's dying father (to whom Resnais is much closer in age). Certainly, it is essential to emphasize the degree to which Private Fears... is explicitly an old man's film: the film consciously depicts the winter of one's life, which stylistically Resnais reinforces through the use of a snow effect over each of the picture's structural dissolves. Indeed, Private Fears in Public Places represents both an elegiac first-person account by a director not exactly known for direct personal expression, and also to date the year's most elegant piece of filmmaking.

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