The Reeler


April 12, 2007

Private Fears in Public Places

Artful plotting and visuals not enough to sustain weirdly hermetic ensemble drama

Alain Resnais -- once known for the self-conscious “difficulty” of his films -- has in recent years taken to adapting seemingly innocuous source material, only to keep his formal audaciousness relatively intact. In Private Fears In Public Places, technique outstrips content for a while, although the script’s fundamental toothlessness eventually destroys the movie. The title is nothing if not accurate, though a certain amount of caution is needed: Private Fears is the name of Alan Ayckbourn’s source play, but the French title, Coeurs, means “hearts.” As a composite, the two titles offer a fairly accurate indication of what unfolds: hearts and fears collide in the most public of environments (bars, half-constructed apartments, real estate offices) until the snows of Paris erase the boundaries completely.

The story is simple in its complexity; no seemingly minor characters can be introduced without them turning out to be a major player in a different, interrelated drama. The film avoids Crash syndrome by refusing to impose an overarching major statement to unify them all. We begin with Nicole (Laura Morante), who is disdainfully viewing an apartment shown to her by real-estate agent Thierry (André Dussollier), who works with Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), who moonlights as an angel-of-mercy caretaker for the elderly in accordance with her Christian beliefs. This leads to her taking care of Lionel’s father -- Lionel (Pierre Arditi) being the bartender who sees the most of Nicole’s fiancé Dan (Lambert Wilson), whose dissatisfaction with their relationship leads him into the arms of Thierry’s lovelorn sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré).

The thesis has nothing to do with Racism, Entropy or any other grand statement; it is simply that everyone needs someone to love, and not everyone finds said person. For a while, Resnais seems content to visually outclass his material entirely: The film begins with a CGI-aided shot that swoops in from snowing clouds through the window of an apartment building, something both as impossible and showy as any David Fincher shot. Resnais initially disguises the staginess of his material by chopping scenes into two-minute fragments that cut back and forth between each other any time a major turning point in the scene is reached; the dissolves are falling snow, a motif neatly punned upon in the final shot, and the colors (particularly in the bar) are lurid beyond belief. He also throws in deliberate pockets of thematic opacity to confound viewers: The fact that Gaëlle is Thierry’s sister, for example, would be pretty much impossible to ferret out from watching the film alone. The press kit states it with an authority that the film itself rejects, leading confused viewers to wonder the whole time if they might not be father and daughter, or even in an open marriage.

The artful plotting and visuals, however, are not enough. When Resnais left off making deliberately confounding films and produced the relatively straightforward Melo in 1986, speculation abounded that he was using shallow source material to project his own concerns (memory is his beat) in an accessible way, aware of the material’s fundamental inadequacy. Twenty years later, it’s hard to take such justifications in good faith. The formal game-playing here stops dead in its tracks a few times for that deadliest film staple, the teary monologue delivered in unrelieved close-up, and Ayckbourn’s play simply won’t withstand the scrutiny. His characters are stereotypes (Nicole the impatient workaholic, Lionel the wounded good son under the shadow of his father) that don’t show psychological acuity in their creation. Thematically, Resnais is working in the shadow of his ex-writer/actress Agnes Jaoui; where her films (such as The Taste Of Others) take stereotypically French examinations of bourgeois comfort and romance, her characters seem to have interesting lives of their own. Ultimately, Ayckbourn’s characters only exist to propagate a very weird, hermetic interest in certain types of mise-en-scene, and boredom settles in.

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