As he grew older, Alain Resnais revealed the wistful sentimentalist behind the formalist pathfinder of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Muriel. Mélo is illustrative of the French filmmaker’s autumnal mellowness, replacing the fragmentation of the earlier pictures with graceful long takes and a Minnelli-like attention to subtly emotive colors. Adapting an archaic play by Henri Bernstein, Resnais courts quaintness from the get-go: The dramaturgy of the film’s romantic triangle—involving longtime friends and violinists Pierre (Pierre Arditi) and Marcel (André Dussollier) and Pierre’s wife Romaine (Sabine Azéma)—and its fluttery drawing-room dialogue surely must have already been considered creaky when the play first came out in 1929. Yet the director is clearly moved by the characters and their “lost poetry and youth,” and the rapt gaze of his camera extracts true feeling from their tragicomic convolutions. At first coming off as a step backward for Resnais, the theatricality of Mélo (complete with dissolves of red curtains announcing the end of an act) becomes a different sort of experimentalism, attuned more to the emotional wholeness of its protagonists than to the structural splintering of the narrative. Fans of Resnais the hardcore avant-gardist may reject the switch, but the fact is Dussollier’s unbroken, six-minute monologue as his character serenely but achingly recalls his disillusionment with love is more affecting than the entirety of Last Year at Marienbad.
Alain Resnais’s masterful use of lighting benefits from a warm transfer that, while not entirely free of image softness, sustains the melancholy mood. The sound is similarly delicate.
An interview from 2002 with producer Marin Karmitz reveals how no studio wanted to make the film, and how he got Resnais to shoot it in three weeks. An unsubtitled trailer is the only other feature.
Perennial modernist Alain Resnais enters old-man-cinema territory with grace and style.