private fears in public places (2006)
As what I would consider a pretty large fan of film, one of the greatest honors that I can have, aside from actually meeting one of them, is to see one of my idols' films in a theater first-run. It doesn't happen often, but it actually happens a lot more than I would have imagined, given that this is the year 2007 and most of my favorite directors were doing their work in the 1950's and 1960's. Just last year I was given the pleasure of my first Altman film first-run in a theater, as well as my first Lynch; though I'm still kicking myself for missing Bergman's final film Saraband two years ago, and I swear I'll make it to Woody Allen's next film (and make sure you hold me to it; it comes out later this year). Anyhow, to my enormous surprise, Alain Resnais, one of my all-time favorites, is not only not dead, but he has just completed another film. Wow. The film, called Private Fears in Public Places, just arrived at my local arthouse last friday, and I knew I wasn't going to pass up this opportunity to see a Resnais picture first-run. And it turns out the film itself is not too shabby. No, it's not quite on par with the masterpieces of his youth; films that changed the way yours truly looks at cinema like Hiroshima mon Amour, La Guerre est Finie and Last Year at Marienbad, but hey, at the ripe age of 85, Resnais hasn't slipped much either, in fact, he's still got it. Now, if only Godard could get out there and make another picture, I'd be set.
And that's where the excitement really lies in this picture all about various character relationships amidst a swirling vista of lightly falling snow: in seeing an old pro still out there doing what he loves. Don't ask me if the film itself would really be interesting to the uninitiated viewer, because I honestly have no idea, but if you're like me and have even the smallest amount of respect for the man you owe it to yourself not to let this film pass you by. The film, by itself, is interesting enough to get the job done and has a decidedly off-beat approach to the material that no other director would have thought to handle it as. The only major disappointment is that I'm setting the bar high with Resnais' older films that involved some of the most ingenious folding narrative and loosely-plotted joys I've ever seen on celluloid. This doesn't hold a candle to those, in which he more or less rewrote the rules on film grammar, but it's obvious he wasn't even trying anything remotely like it with this one and so it really has more to do with my personal expectations. Honestly, when the film starts off it leaves one cringing at the stark similarities to this decade's most mediocre film formula, the "interconnecting stories" plot. This homogenized approach to screenwriting has marred some of the past few years' most annoyingly idiotic, and even more annoyingly well-received, pictures like Crash, Babel, and Syriana. I've voiced my low opinion of this lazy tactic many times before, it's probably my least favorite trick in the book because it's always so damn predictable. However, here, Resnais is only fooling with us; he only wants us to think we're watching Love, Actually so we anticipate all sorts of lame conventions along with it, which he happily defies as the film progresses. Resnais makes his direction somewhat invisible, which is surprising, because in a film like La Guerre est Finie it takes a backseat to nothing and no one. His cast is a reliable little bunch made up of only 6 principle members, but each story crisscrosses in a way that makes it feel like there are far more. Once again, let me take this time to thank Resnais for not making everyone's story "come together" at the end of the film, it's cool with me that the ending isn't a contrived piece of garbage; not every character ends up knowing one another/ supplying rifles for the other while on vacation/ being revealed as so-and-so's brother/ loading blanks into eachother's guns only to misinterpreted by a child as a "bullet-proof cape". It's refreshing. Anyhow, the stories focus on a young engaged couple, a brother and sister, a bartender and a woman whose work life connects her to the brother and the bartender. Each character seems to be of a drastically different age which makes for some interesting interactions, no one in the film is what I would consider terribly young so it also brings an interesting aspect to this concoction. Resnais keeps it all running smoothly with his excellent pacing and direction, though it can tend to feel a bit episodic since each scene is extremely short, this is not a detriment. As most films with very short scenes tend to feel crammed and stuffed, this film feels natural and smooth, a testament to the man behind the camera and his many many years of experience.
One of the biggest factors that I can attribute the film's success to is the color. Resnais uses a color pallet like I've never seen, especially in the wonderfully designed bar set with plenty of flashing lights, and overbearing tones of yellow and purple, all mixed together like a dry martini by the sparkling snow easily falling outside the windows. The snow adds a cool touch to many of the scenes, but I could have done without it being used constantly as a transition, this tended to get on my nerves and was never that aesthetically pleasing in the first place. I see what he was going for more or less, to have the snow play a larger part as a motif throughout the film, but I can't say the result succeeds. Oh well. Anyhow, the vibrant colors are fantastic in the way that they don't transmit their normal message of an upbeat tone to the scenes. Instead the bar gives us some of the most quiet, pensive and downbeat scenes in the entire film, and yet it is visually, the most interesting environment. It reminds me of Kurosawa's late-life masterpieces Ran which carried incredibly dark tones with an aesthetic that was never, even once, visually dark in terms of color and lighting. Resnais makes some great decisions around the end of this with spotlights and even better abstractions with the falling snow, and perhaps even a visual reference to Hiroshima mon Amour, which was greatly appreciated. A search for love always seems to be at the center of a Resnais film and this one is no different, each character simultaneously searching for it while shutting themselves off to it with their inability to let someone into their private world. The title fits nicely as that's really what the themes of the film center on, the introverted world inside of us that carries all of our private fears, desires and impulses. Let someone into yours, or feel as though someone else has let you into theirs, and it's a one-way ticket to falling in love, almost out of obligation. We're constantly looking for someone to let in, as Resnais tells it, it's seemingly all we want, and yet we only pick and choose a select few. The lines between acquaintance, friend and lover are drawn all over this fine film. As I've spoken of throughout, Resnais is a master of his medium and his direction here seems effortlessly good, which is always the appearance of professional and carefully designed film craftsmanship. The visuals are the film's strong point as we weave in and out of his world in long, lingering takes through the tops of his cieling-less sets, or peering through distorted glass, even walls. The only actor I recognize in the cast is Lambert Wilson, but the rest of the cast , especially the alluring female members, are all more than up to the task. They, like the entire film itself, seem to kick back and take it easy. Everyone, cast and crew, is 100% comfortable in their surroundings and shows what confident filmmaking can produce. While it breaks no new ground, it is a wonderful work from a cinema legend, and one who I hope is not through treating us all to his fantastic vision. This is a film with some real heart, some real truth, and some nicely-done humor as well (a new addition to the Resnais canon, at least to my knowledge). It's a great piece of work.
So what else is there to say? This is the kind of chance a film buff should never pass up. It's not perfect, but it is a highly satisfying film experience that brushes through you and quickly melts away like a snow flurry. A great way to spend an evening at the movies even if you're not familiar with the work of the man who's making it all possible. Get out there and check it out, and when you're done go find Hiroshima mon Amour and revel in that for awhile.