Film

The Best in Home Video: Resnais’s ‘Je T’Aime Je T’Aime,’ Rediscovered Again, and the Glories of Bill Morrison

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An ultra-modern missing chapter in the story of how the New Wave reinvented movies, Alain Resnais’s Je T’Aime Je T’Aime (1968) has been remade scores of times without credit, from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) to Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and beyond. Where’s it been? Rarely screened since its debut at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival was scotched thanks to all of France going on strike (the fest “rediscovered” it in 2014), this testy sci-fi daydream is hardly ever remembered when the late Resnais’s amazing career is tallied up. But it’s a criminally underappreciated genre piece, a radical and heartbroken experiment in which the filmmaker’s fascination with memory-as-story-in-flux gets an aerobic workout via that most fecund of science fiction ideas: time travel.

The new Kino Blu-ray edition puts it all in context — especially the part about the script being whittled down from over 800 pages of “automatic writing” by Belgian surrealist-fantasist Jacques Sternberg. (Resnais had the habit of asking postmodern novelists, not screenwriters, to pen his movies.) The diffident Claude Rich stars as a man just recovering from a suicide attempt when he is recruited by a team of scientists to test their time travel apparatus, which so far has only accommodated mice. (“A mouse hasn’t exploded in over a year,” one asserts reassuringly.)

With nothing left to lose, Rich’s shrugging everyman agrees, entering into the huge hot-wired chamber — it’s shaped like a garlic bulb the size of a car, and Rich gets swallowed in its cushy organic vulva of an interior. There, he’s sent into bad-memory free fall. Scrambled, fractured, spiced with bits of dreams, his previous year of life gets revisited over and over again, and he is forced (as in Tarkovsky’s Solaris) to relive a romance, in this case with Olga Georges-Picot’s icy-gorgeous schizo-queen, up to her death.

Resnais keeps the equations open — we only discover in the end how the girlfriend dies, and how Rich’s hero is poisoned by guilt. But of course nothing is resolved, least of all the present — the “experiment” of facing down grief and remembrance goes awry, and the question about whether he can ever return (from where?) is never answered. Just as time travel is merely the literalization of memory and its inevitable slippages, the whole film is about the not-knowing of life and love, and the movie lets loose a very sad song. The disc’s fascinating supplements include interviews, short docs, and an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Even more mysteriously fraught with forgetfulness, Bill Morrison’s Beyond Zero: 1914–1918 (2014), recently on disc from Icarus Films, tells the story of World War I in forty soul-haunting, eye-roasting minutes of molten decay and mortal shadow. Universally acclaimed and widely screened as “alternative” filmmakers hardly ever are anymore, Morrison has an m.o. that seems simple on its face — assemble neglected or leftover nitrate film footage that is at one stage or another of dissolving into toxic goo, slow it down to a poetic trance (so the rotting plastic undulates and seethes like a living thing), and score it with some variety of pensive, throbbing modern music. That’s it — but the emotional payout is always awesome.

The reclaimed footage here literally limns the arc of the war, but in incidental moments no one remembers: troops (from at least four different participating countries) marching, digging trenches, training, fighting, retrieving corpses, and all the while the grainy cloud of the images’ world seizes and hemorrhages and warps (sometimes in fiery color), as if we’re watching time itself lay siege to the fading memory of the war. Images hold fast: a German shepherd helping to ferret out a corpse in a spinach field, a solarized fairytale forest being assaulted by a tree-crushing tank, a melancholy vision of a lone parachutist falling through a boiling sky. All of Morrison’s films are, implicitly, about the devastation of time, and this featurette (with a score like that of a dissonant horror film from composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, performed by the Kronos Quartet) puts a sociopolitically potent capstone on the filmmaker’s career so far.

Mention should be made, too, with the recent passing of Celtic demigoddess Maureen O’Hara, of the new Blu-ray set from Warner toasting the Golden Age annus mirabilis 1939, with pristine copies of Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Dodge City (wait a minute), and, more to the point, William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This last beaut, in which an eighteen-year-old O’Hara blazes as the most realistic and bewitching Esmeralda in Hunchback-movie history, has a deflated reputation as just another stodgy studio Great Book adaptation. But it deserves reevaluation: The full-on Middle Ages re-creation (via set design, seamless process work, and massive scope) evokes Goya and Arthur Rackham like no other Hollywood film ever did, while the necessary abridgment of Hugo doesn’t skimp on the percolation of civil rage, the brutality of the state, or the repression of lust (personified by Cedric Hardwicke’s evil deacon, unable to take his eyes off O’Hara’s breasts) that ignites the entire story. As Quasimodo, Charles Laughton is no Lon Chaney, but rather a malformed baby (even his hair is fine, like a toddler’s) in a rampaging id of a body.

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