Six Lives to Live

The ubiquitous snowfall that blankets Alain Resnais' Private Fears in Public Places is a king-sized box of Hollywood soapflakes—the use of blatant artifice to engage our imaginations and empathy, bringing us to something more real than sense-deadening “realism.”

And so the snow falls, in Resnais' exquisite comedy-drama, on a Paris of color-coded soundstage interiors. 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 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, 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' 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. Rather, it's a tribute to the pleasures of Ayckbourn's elegantly symmetrical construction and Resnais' nimble staging. In the office, timid agent Thierry (Andr Dussollier) shyly eyes his coworker, a redheaded sprite named Charlotte (Sabine Azma) 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 midlife 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' 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. The snowy dissolves that punctuate each scene strand the characters (and the viewer) in mid-emotion—none more painfully than Thierry's lovelorn sister Galle (a radiant Isabelle Carr), 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.

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' 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.

By the same token, Resnais' intellectual engagement in no way diminishes the charm of a flawless cast at work or of the unfashionable virtues of what gets disparaged as “civilized entertainment.” Alain Resnais is now 84 years old; perhaps it takes eight decades of living to make a movie this compassionate, this confident—and this young.

Private Fears in Public Places was directed by Alain Resnais; written by Jean-Michel Ribes, adapted from a play by Alan Ayckbourn; produced by Bruno Psery. At South Coast Village, Santa Ana.

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