Je T’aime, Je T’aime opens on a formally conservative note—lanky red credits against a pitch-black background, with eerie choral music by Krzysztof Penderecki echoing behind it—and proceeds to rip it to shreds. Jacques Sternberg’s screenplay snakes around thoughts, memories, and impulses as a means of revising them; it’s not for nothing that the only piece of music in the film not by Penderecki is Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso,” itself a winding, cyclical parody of a basic set of piano scales. Resnais’s title raises the question: If you say “I love you” twice in a row, what is the feedback between the two declarations? Can one negate the other in a vicious cycle?
Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) emerges rumpled, with a caustic sense of humor, from a mental hospital following a botched suicide attempt. Two men in crisp suits approach him, ask him if he has the afternoon free. Claude assents because the sun is shining, and it’s revealed they have prototyped a specialized form of time travel in a rural, top-secret lab. Following successful testing on mice, the experiment needs a human—and Claude is the ideal candidate, one of the scientists insists, because he has nothing to lose. After ribbing them about his shaky mental stability, Claude is laid down on a warm, leathery orb. Monitored from outside, he begins the procedure—and is smash-cut back into a moment from the same summer afternoon, one year prior.
Rich deserves more credit than he will probably ever be given for his performance as a charming but essentially weak and confused ladies’ man. The blossoming and dying of his relationship with Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot) is the actual story enshrouded in Je T’aime, Je T’aime’s maddeningly elliptical narrative contours. The romance, it must be assumed, was written by Sternberg as a straight chronology, but reorganized by Resnais in a careful, retroactive jumble. Claude’s flashbacks are fragments of carefully staged dialogue scenes—not mere eye candy, musical interludes, location footage, or B roll. We see Claude remember telling his friends he killed Catrine, but what he means is he pushed her so far away she lost her spirit, never working up the nerve to officially call it off.
That first memory sees Claude on vacation, coming up for air in the south of France, glistening in the sun, heaving with exhilarated breath. Resnais returns to this initially refreshing moment more than any other, complicating its meaning as a scene, further coloring the film’s portrayal of Claude’s vacation with Catrine—who sits on the beach as he emerges—each time. Arranging these shards of recollections, Resnais will cut in two different takes of the same moment or add a shot, subliminal flashes of sabotage that imperil the narrative’s credibility on purpose. Je T’aime, Je T’aime proposes that mental states and emotional traumas have just as much influence on your health as your physical DNA, your injuries, your bones.
Resnais’s oft-revisited image of Claude sunk passively into the bulbous couch-pod more and more resembles any archetypal “viewer” even while his character descends into despair. Contorting, wincing in pain, he screams for help to no avail; eventually one must recognize that Claude isn’t nearly as sympathetic a lead without the experiment. Trapped, reexamining the scattered replays of his life way too late to salvage them, you can’t help but recall a conversation early in the film between Claude and one of the scientists. It’s one of Resnais’s funniest comments on memory, which in this prismatic, bottomlessly rich movie is pretty much the same thing as love. After being politely assured the procedure had “no ill effects” on the lab mice, Claude responds: “Then how do you know it really happened?”