Sunday, April 13, 2008

Private Fears in Public Places

Cœurs ("Hearts") is the original title of a 2006 French film directed by Alain Resnais and written by Jean-Michel Ribes, from the play Private Fears in Public Places by Alan Ayckbourn. It was marketed in North America as Private Fears in Public Places. The film won several awards, including a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

For the second time in his career Alain Resnais turned to an Alan Ayckbourn play for his source material (having previously adapted another play for Smoking/No Smoking), and remained close to the original structure while transferring the setting and milieu from provincial England to the 13th arrondissement of Paris (contrary to his usual preference).

The film consists of over 50 short scenes, usually featuring two characters - occasionally three or just one. Scenes are linked by dissolves featuring falling snow, a device which Resnais previously used in L'Amour à mort (1984).

Several of Resnais's regular actors appear in the film (Arditi, Azéma, Dussollier, Wilson), and he was joined by his longstanding technical collaborators in design and editing, but he worked for the first time with cinematographer Éric Gautier.

The fictional TV programmes called "Ces chansons qui ont changé ma vie" which feature in the film were directed by Bruno Podalydès.

In this cold-hearted comedy, loneliness sets its winter camp in the city of love. Master auteur Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year At Marienbad) directs
Paris - the city of light, the city of love, the city of life. Set a film there, and it is obligatory to include an establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower, looming benignly over all the sophisticated romance below. And sure enough, it is with just such an image that Private Fears In Public Places (Coeurs) opens - except that most of the familiar monument, and all of the city, is shrouded in mist and snow.

There is snow everywhere in Alain Resnais' feature. Beautiful images of falling flakes periodically appear as interstices between one scene and the next. You can see it fluttering down through windows in the background. You even, in one hauntingly surreal sequence, see it falling inside an apartment - but most of all, it blankets the hearts of the film's characters, as they settle in for a long, cold winter of loneliness and despair. Forget the Paris we are used to seeing in cinema - for here that most passionate of cities has been stripped entirely of its usual warmth.

Estate agent Thierry (Dussollier) is helping Nicole (Morante) find the right apartment, but it is not easy. Her feckless fiancé Dan (Wilson), who has just been dishonourably discharged from the military, wants an additional room to serve as his private study, while Nicole herself would prefer the extra room for a baby.

Back at the office, Thierry's secretary Charlotte (Azéma) lends him a videotape of her favourite Sunday religious programme. Thierry is not at all interested in God, but as he is most certainly interested in Charlotte, he grudgingly watches the show at home - only to discover, at its end, a rather unexpected piece of footage.

Meanwhile, Charlotte is moonlighting as saintly carer for the terminally ill, interminably rude Arthur (Rich), while his once-estranged son Lionel (Arditi) tends bar at a hotel - where Thierry's younger sister Gaëlle (Carré) will end up on the date of her life with Dan, who has just separated from Nicole. Happiness has a way of eluding even those who are willing to make a break from the past.

After the two-handed double-feature Smoking/No Smoking (1993), Private Fears In Public Places is Resnais' second film based on the drama of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn - but where the former painstakingly adhered to its original English setting and characters, this new film has been transposed (by its adaptor, French playwright Jean-Michel Ribes) to Paris and to an all-French ensemble.

It works - for while Ayckbourn's play may have been a black comedy about the peculiar anxieties haunting the English middle classes, in Resnais' hands it turns out that solitude, mortality, yearning and loss are afflictions of a more universal nature, readily transcending national boundaries without losing any of their dramatic impact.

Private Fears In Public Places is indeed a comedy, full of inopportune entrances, foolish misunderstandings and surprise revelations. It can be riotously funny - but it is also the kind of comedy that will leave you shivering, as everyone is confronted by "the Darkness with a capital D". What starts as a slight farce ends in the far weightier terrains of tragedy, as Resnais transforms his flawed but painfully recognisable characters into existential anti-heroes facing the iciest of human conditions.

The film's 50 or so scenes might all be intimately connected as the lives of these characters echo and even intersect each other, but Resnais is far more interested in the divisions that set us apart - whether it is the ill-constructed inner wall that bisects the first apartment visited by Nicole, the curtain that splits Lionel's bar in two, the partition that separates Thierry's office from Charlotte's, or the thematic oppositions of heaven and hell, men and women, piety and temptation.

In keeping with its dramatic origins, most of the film's action is confined to indoor locations, but Eric Gautier's sweeping camerawork gives everything a cinematic quality, not to mention an exquisitely stylised aesthetic. It is a pure joy to watch, with performances all the more generous for being so unflattering - and it will make you smile, even if, by the end, that smile will be frozen on your face.

One can argue that the French master Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Stavisky, many others) is simultaneously the least and the most realistic of filmmakers. The least realistic because all of his films insist on the primacy of their construction as films, and the most realistic because he shows a total commitment to the human reality — emotional, psychological, behavioral — within those constructions. Resnais's films are always demanding in different ways, but if you can meet their demands — which I and some of my confreres will insist are not really as difficult as some would make them seem — they always convince.

Hence, Private Fears in Public Places, which is the original title of the Alan Ayckbourn play from which Resnais and writer Jean Michel Ribes have adapted this film's scenario and dialogue. (As my colleague Dave Kehr has already pointed out, the French title, Couers, is actually more apt.) This entirely remarkable contraption has a structure that could be pinned on Arthur Schnitzler, but in fact has more in common with what GQ critic Tom Carson calls "the sodoku film" — a plot in which the intertwined interactions of X number of characters result in X number of epiphanaic conclusions. Except, not really.

In an almost completely studio-created Paris (the only "real" "landscapes" are merged into the least-convincing snow since the silent era — entirely on purpose, mind you), a grasping real-estate agent (Andre Dussollier) is trying to sell an increasingly heartbroken wife (Laura Morante) on a series of inappropriate apartments. Back at his office, the real-estate agent's seemingly saintly co-worker (Sabine Azema) gives him videotapes of an inspirational TV program she's keen for him to watch. The tail ends of said tapes contain somewhat more salacious and personal content than what she's peddling. The not-quite saint takes a job looking after the highly curmudgeonly elderly dad of a suave bartender (Arditi), one of whose most regular customers is the frustrated loser husband of the heartbroken wife (Lambert Wilson), whose new love interest is the personal-ad placing younger (much younger!) sister (Carre) of the grasping real-estate agent...

This sounds more confusing than it is, which is not at all. That's thanks to Ayckbourn's sure sense of construction and Resnais' absolute grasp of the construction. What makes Private Fears so extraordinary is not just how it completely upends the expectations that have come to seem inherent in such a structure, but how Resnais constantly pushes the boundaries of his, well, let's call it visual depiction (so as to spare those who are mortally offended by the term mise en scene). He employs all the tools of studio-bound moviemaking, silent-era to post-modern, in a way that is not only is consistently dazzling in a purely visual sense, but contains an empathy that lifts the picture to tragic heights even at those points at which it seems practically weightless.

In contemporary Paris, six characters individually confront their emotional solitude as their lives intertwine. Dan (Lambert Wilson) is unemployed after being sacked from the army and spends his time drinking in a bar and telling his troubles to the longsuffering barman Lionel (Pierre Arditi). Dan's relationship with Nicole (Laura Morante) is disintegrating and through a newspaper advertisement he meets Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), an attractive but insecure young woman who lives with her older brother Thierry (André Dussollier). Thierry is an estate agent who has been trying to find a new appartment for Nicole and Dan. He works with Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), a middle-aged spinster and an ardent Christian, who lends him a video of an evangelical TV programme to give him inspiration.

At the end of the video, Thierry discovers some unerased footage of erotic dancing by a woman he suspects to be Charlotte, and, taking this as a subtle invitation, one day he tries to kiss her in their office, but is humiliatingly rebuffed. Charlotte in her spare time works as a carer, and is assigned to look after the bed-ridden and foul-mouthed Arthur (the voice of Claude Rich) in the evenings so that his dutiful son, who is Lionel the barman, can go to work. After enduring repeated vicious tantrums from Arthur, Charlotte one evening dons a leather porno outfit and silences him with a striptease performance, before resuming her usual pious demeanour. Arthur is hospitalised next day. Gaëlle witnesses a farewell meeting between Dan and Nicole, and interpreting it as a betrayal by Dan, she flees back home to her brother. Lionel and Nicole both pack up to begin new lives. Dan resumes his place at the bar.

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