Category Archives: Alain Resnais

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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Mon Oncle D’Amerique (1980)

“The hierarchy of dominance has been established.”

The film Mon Oncle D’Amerique (My American Uncle) explores events in the lives of three diverse characters against the backdrop of a psychological explanation for their actions. The film’s premise is that our behaviour–which may often seem inexplicable and irrational–is deeply rooted in childhood and also affected by the basic, predictable rules of conditioning.

The first half hour of the film introduces its three main characters–Jean (Roger Pierre) Rene (Gerard Depardieu) and Janine (Nicole Garcia). They have wildly different upbringings and values, and are immeasurably influenced by film stars they watched as children. All three characters have the shadowy figure of a legendary American uncle in their past, whose long-forgotten adventures are shrouded in rumours of disaster and success. Jean is one of the privileged upper classes and brought up with a respect for education and property. He is also a consummate politician who loathes to disturb the status quo. Rene is the son of a peasant farmer, and he’s raised in a catholic household, taught to obey, and his father abhors education. Rene’s peasant childhood never leaves him. Firmly ensconced in the hierarchy of factory life, he is all too well aware that he is fully expendable. Janine, on the other hand, is raised as a militant communist, attending rallies, and questioning authority figures, and because she’s much more used to conflict, she successfully reinvents herself twice throughout the course of the film.

Flashes of the personal histories of these three characters are woven into explanations of behaviorist theory from Professor Henri Laborit. Laborit proffers experiments involving rats (and warning here–they are electrocuted in order for Laborit to make his point), and then he extrapolates his results to humans. He argues that humans are “no less complicated than laboratory rats. What is easy for a rat in a cage is more difficult for man in society.” He conducts experiments to show inhibition behaviour, aggression, and defensive violence, and then scenes from the film underscore Laborit’s arguments.

The film’s first half hour provides the necessary background for the rest of the film, and it may bore some viewers to tears. Simply put, the film explains fundamental elements of human behaviour, and this is achieved so visually, that once watched and absorbed, it will never be forgotten. Mon Oncle D’Amerique directed by Alain Resnais is not a particularly easy–or traditional–film, but on the other hand, if you enjoy French film with a strong philosophical or psychological foundation, then there’s an excellent chance you’ll enjoy Mon Oncle D’Amerique. It’s one of my great favourites. In French with English subtitles.

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Private Fears in Public Places (2006)

“I’ve read about drunken girl gangs.” 

 

Directed by Alain Resnais Private Fears in Public Places weaves together the interconnecting stories of a disparate group of lonely French singles while examining loneliness and the inability to communicate as fatal obstacles to intimacy. The result is a very clever film that resonates long after the credits roll. Private Fears in Public Places at first seems to treat its subjects superficially (and this is underscored by the often hearted handling of the subject matter), but now days after watching the film, I am still mulling over the characters’ actions.

 

Paris real estate agent, Thierry (Andre Dussollier) shows a series of apartments to Nicole (Laura Morante), but her fiancé Dan (Lambert Wilson), ex-army and now unemployed argues that everything she finds is too small. He insists he needs a study for undefined purposes. Meanwhile, Thierry’s coworker–single, religious Charlotte (Sabine Azema) insists on sharing inspirational videotapes. These tapes are a yawn fest to Thierry, until he discovers something rather surprising. In the meantime, Thierry’s lonely sister Gaelle (Isabelle Carre) goes on a series of blind dates.

 

Dan avoids Nicole and the impending crisis in their relationship by hanging out at a local bar. The only person Dan can connect with is bartender, Lionel (Pierre Arditi), and while Lionel is not exactly paid to listen to his customers’ stories of woe, this goes along with the territory. Lionel, however, has problems of his own, and he employs Charlotte to mind his demented father while he works shifts at the bar.

 

Based on a play from the nimble mind of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (and if you ever get a chance to see one of his plays performed, grab the opportunity), the light comic approach belies the seriousness of the subject matter. What could so easily have become a depressing dissection of the inherent loneliness of city lives is tempered with humour. The short scenes end with snow falling. Yes it’s winter in Paris, but the characters also live in a frosty state of emotionally barren lives. Thierry and his sister may share a flat, but they crawl into their own little corners, sharing little. Charlotte creates a façade that covers some much more interesting behaviour, and Dan cannot vocalize his unhappiness in spite of Nicole’s repeated attempts. In French with subtitles, this is another marvelous film from Resnais. 

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