Private Fears In Public Places (Coeurs) Review
Always a unique and distinctive filmmaker, working away in his own fashion and taking little notice of current cinema trends, Alain Resnais’ recent films may not have been as experimental and challenging as his work during the 60s and the 70s but, with a small team of regular actors, his films have continued to be personal affairs, quite unlike anything else in mainstream French cinema. Working in areas and with subjects more common with the popular entertainments of television serials, soap operas, popular theatre and old French music hall, the director’s recent films have not only found it difficult to find an audience at the cinema, but their qualities have also consequently been rather underrated. Even more so in the UK, where his last film Pas Sur La Bouche, a delirious piece of French music hall theatre starring Audrey Tautou, did not even see a theatrical or DVD release. The opportunity to see a new Alain Resnais film in the UK is something to be celebrated and Coeurs is certainly something worth making the effort to see, although again, it may struggle to find an audience appreciative of its attractions.
It’s even difficult to make all the elements that make up the film sound appealing. For the inspiration of his new film, Resnais has returned to the theatre of English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, previously adapted by the director in his highly-stylised 1993 diptych Smoking/No Smoking. Based on the play Public Fears In Private Places, the film takes a rather soap-opera approach to a large group of interconnected characters, each of them unhappy in their familial and romantic relationships, but keeping dark secrets and inner desires hidden from those close to them.
With Resnais’ regular troupe of actors – Azéma, Arditti, Dussollier and, lately, Wilson - Private Fears In Public Places has much in common with the director’s earlier apparently lightweight Dennis Potter influenced On Connaît La Chanson, particularly as the film centres around the branch of an estate agents. Here, on a picturesque corner location in the fashionably up-and-coming Bercy region of Paris, looking out on the snow-covered streets, Charlotte (Sabine Azéma) works with Thierry (André Dussollier). Both single, they have worked together a long time and share a lot of common interests, but since Charlotte is a deeply religious woman, Thierry is unsure about the signals he believes she is sending out to him. When she lends him a video recording of her favourite TV show – a show where celebrities select a hymn or religious piece of music that holds special significance for them - Thierry reluctantly gives it a viewing, but is shocked to find it has been recorded over a pornographic film starring an actress who looks surprisingly familiar. He happily accepts Charlotte’s offer of more video tapes.
Their work and after-hours activities bring them into contact with a sombre bunch of characters all having similar difficulties in their lives and relationships. There is Nicole (Laura Morante) and her unemployed boyfriend Dan (Lambert Wilson), who are looking for an apartment together; Lionel (Pierre Arditi), a bartender at Dan’s local watering hole; and Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), Thierry’s unlucky-in-love younger (much younger) sister. Each of them are looking to bring something new to their lives, but their past seems to hold them back from making a meaningful connection to the new people they interact with everyday.
With its rather open-endedness and lack of resolution – to say nothing of a music score by Mark Snow no less - Private Fears In Public Places resembles nothing so much as the pilot for a never-to-be-made television series – and indeed, Resnais confessed in a French magazine to being obsessed recently with US TV drama serials. But what sounds like rather pedestrian material of popular television and stage drama becomes something else entirely in the hands of a director like Alain Resnais and his regular actors of the finest calibre. The ensemble work is magnificent, Resnais bringing each of the situations together with fluid ease, giving each of the actors the opportunity to demonstrate their range in the different lives they lead and the different ways the characters interact with each other. Similarly delightful is Resnais’ approach to mise en scène which – like his earlier Ayckbourn adaptation Smoking/No Smoking - is far removed from any kind of realism, evoking a hyper-theatricality, but one that is gloriously coloured, toned and perfectly attuned to the lives of its characters, the constantly falling snow in particular reminiscent of Resnais disquieting inserts on L’Amour à Mort. Any question about the relevance or significance of this apparently lightweight subject matter can therefore be happily discarded – Resnais and his cast raising the material into the realm of pure cinema.
Private Fears In Public Places is not a film to wait for its release on DVD, it demands to be seen on the big screen. UK viewers will have the opportunity to see it when it is released theatrically by Artificial Eye, probably on limited release, on 20th July 2007.