Providence (1977)

“I passed from childhood more or less to wifehood without the tiresome intervention of a development of personality in between”

I rather like the films of Alain Resnais, and the fact that Dirk Bogarde has a leading role fueled my curiosity even further, so I sought out a copy of Providence.

A dying author Clive Langham (John Gielgud) spends a pain-wracked night attempting to work through the plot of what will inevitably be his last novel. Part of the film shows Clive as he struggles to juggle the plot with the constant distraction of pain, and part of the film follows the characters in Clive’s fictional plot. Clive’s plot concerns an uptight lawyer, Claude (Dirk Bogarde) and his unhappy, bitter marriage to Sonia (Ellen Burstyn). When the film begins, Clive imagines a fictional scene in which Claude defends Kevin (David Warner) a man accused of murder.

While the film is interesting in its clever stream of consciousness exploration of the creative process, I also found it rather frustrating to watch. Clive is under the influence of a considerable amount of alcohol and pain medication, so his nights are restless, and his creative juices are somewhat erratic. For example, Clive constantly imagines scenes (which we see played out) and then corrects them. And of course, while this no doubt happens in real life as any author proceeds with a book, in the case of Providence, Clive’s mind wanders. Two imagined characters, for example, are in a hotel room exchanging an intense dialog, when a third character, a footballer, jogs in. The author’s omnipotent voice then interrupts to question the presence of the third character, and then the scene promptly replays without the footballer. In other instances, two characters are sitting at a table contemplating the scene of a city, but then the scenery changes to a beach. Some of the elements in the fictional plot are surreal–the gunfire and shady military actions, and the wolfman, for example. With these constant distractions, I found it difficult to become very involved in the plot.

The best parts of the film are, of course, those bitter, barbed marital exchanges that take place between Claude and his wife. The imagined Claude is an emotionless man who keeps a dying mistress (Elaine Stritch), and the nasty exchanges that take place between Claude and his wife Sonia are marvelous.

The film explores the process of creativity with an emphasis on the fact that authors frequently dig deeply into their personal experiences for material. In Providence, we see that real life intrudes into the imagination in many ways. In Claude’s case, his personal life is transmuted into fiction, and while certain key factors are present (his wife’s terminal cancer, for example), other characters assume entirely different personalities. This film, by the way, is entirely in English.

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