The ubiquitous snowfall that blankets Alain Resnais’s Private Fears in Public Places is a king-sized box of Hollywood soapflakes. As glimpsed through plate-glass facades, postage-stamp windows and doorways that might as well be portals into the void, it’s fake in a grand tradition of movie precipitate: the art- directed sifting that isolates Jane Wyman at last with Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows; the Yuletide blizzard that douses one set of romantic hopes and blesses another in the glorious finale of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. What these movies share, besides fragile and hard-won happiness—and the raw material for a snowball fight—is the use of blatant artifice to engage our imaginations and empathy; to find, through stylized heightening, something more real than sense-deadening “realism.”
And so the snow falls, in Resnais’s exquisite comedy-drama, on a Paris of color-coded soundstage interiors, some without ceilings or even a fourth wall. Six characters, either nearing or passing middle age, combine and recombine into couples, seeking the warmth of human connection against the chill outside. A pair of public spaces—a glass-walled real-estate office and a wowsers space-age bachelor pad of a hotel bar—are the hubs they orbit before retreating to the pitched battlefields of home.
The sets are deliberately artificial; the longing and isolation they contain are genuine. Coming from a director who made some of the most challenging and form-breaking films of the nouvelle vague
era—particularly the memory-as-shrapnel meditations Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad—this quasi-farcical fugue on loneliness and the difficulty of forging new loves late in life seems almost quaint in its mixing of golden-age cinematic gloss and transparently theatrical design. But Resnais’s mastery shows how avant-garde the movie equivalent of a well-made play can be.
That isn’t a slap at the source material, a play by Alan Ayckbourn (who also provided Resnais with the Anglophilic diptych Smoking/No Smoking). Rather, it’s a tribute to the pleasures of Ayckbourn’s elegantly symmetrical construction and Resnais’s nimble staging. In the office, timid agent Thierry (André Dussollier) shyly eyes his co-worker, a redheaded sprite named Charlotte (Sabine Azéma) whose devout faith doesn’t rule out amateur porn. In the hotel, worldly barkeep Lionel (Pierre Arditi) dispenses Scotch and wisdom to Dan (Lambert Wilson), a disgraced ex-career officer turned mid-life layabout. Lionel hires Charlotte to nurse his bedridden, curmudgeonly father, represented by Claude Rich’s off-screen voice and several airborne projectiles. Meanwhile, Dan’s frustrated girlfriend, Nicole (Laura Morante), tries to resuscitate their dying relationship by finding a new apartment, with Thierry’s help.
Resnais’s last two films, Same Old Song and Not on the Lips (which went all but unseen in the U.S.), experimented with musical conventions. Private Fears in Public Places resembles a Vincente Minnelli musical with the songs elided, leaving the persistent ache of unexpressed desires. Where Minnelli’s characters would open their hearts and throats in confidence to the viewer—eking out, say, some sliver of personal space in the close quarters of Meet Me in St. Louis—Resnais draws a curtain. The snowy dissolves that punctuate each scene strand the characters (and the viewer) in mid-emotion—none more painfully than Thierry’s lovelorn sister Ga (a radiant Isabelle Carré), who pins a bold crimson flower to her lapel on a succession of luckless blind dates.
Visually and dramatically, the movie is partitioned into small sections. The script, adapted by Jean-Michel Ribes, consists mainly of brief two-character vignettes, some barely lasting a minute. No one— not Thierry, holed up in lust-struck thrall to a spicy VHS tape; not Lionel, secretly agonizing in a roomful of oblivious customers—keeps our company for very long. The effect, at times, is of channel-surfing among six stations of simulcast melancholy. Among Resnais’s trash-TV referents here is the lowly soap opera, that boon companion to the lonely and housebound. (Every time a scene ends with a character staring wistfully into space, you may imagine an announcer’s voice thanking Procter & Gamble for its sponsorship.)
But lowbrow plus highbrow does not equal middlebrow, and the breezy accessibility of
Private Fears in Public Places does not make it any less a work of art than Resnais’s more difficult early successes. The effervescence of his direction disguises its formal rigor: the horizontal stripes that recur from set to set, subdividing apartments into compartments and walling off characters; the blocking that equates physical barriers with mental minefields; the coolly precise camera movements that shift the emotional focus within a scene. (The ravishing camerawork by Eric Gautier, who serves nouvelle-nouvelle-vague directors as heroically as Raoul Coutard did Truffaut and Godard, charges every ion of the pristine frame with tactile longing.) By the same token, Resnais’s intellectual engagement in no way diminishes the charm of a flawless cast at work (veterans Dussollier, Arditi, Azéma, and Wilson are particularly fine) or of the unfashionable virtues of what gets disparaged as “civilized entertainment.” Resnais is now 84 years old; perhaps it takes eight decades of living to make a movie this compassionate, this confident—and this young.