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Three Films by Alain Resnais: Je T’aime, Je T’aime, Stavisky…, & Mon Oncle d’Amérique

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Three Films by Alain Resnais: <em>Je T’aime, Je T’aime</em>, <em>Stavisky…</em>, & <em>Mon Oncle d’Amérique</em>

[The Alain Resnais series is now playing at Berkeley’s BAMPFA. Click here for more information.]

Back in August, when I first heard about the re-envisioning/discontinuation of LACMA’s film program, I met the news with a heavy heart and resounding guilt. I’d been living in Los Angeles for the good part of nearly two years, but due to my aversion or, um, blind fear of driving in the city (it really is as bad as it seems), I rarely found the nerve to get on the I-10 and make my way over to the Miracle Mile. But in learning that LACMA’s film program was about to be shut down, I resolved to finally bite the bullet and take advantage of the repertory scene in the city, while I still could. Thankfully, due to the diligence of Save Film at LACMA and public outcry, the program will continue for at least another year.

I spent the first two weekends in October sitting in the Bing Theater for the Alain Resnais retrospective, and was pleased to see that the theater was at least half full (a healthy mix of college-age and older generations), a far cry from the hey-day, but still, it’s something. The Resnais series is set to travel to other repertory houses in the country into 2010. Out of the films shown, Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967), Stavisky… (1974), and Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980) are not readily available on DVD or otherwise easy to procure, and are thus are the ones I wound up seeing. Although vastly different in terms of genre—Je t’aime, je t’aime (sci-fi), Stavisky… (crime) and Mon oncle d’Amérique (documentary/drama)—all three films contain a similar obsession with the deconstruction and fragmentation of time (a Resnais hallmark), wrapping these later films within the same thematic cloak as Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and, of course, Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

There are hundreds, thousands, of cinematic treasures that have yet to be granted a second life via DVD resuscitation. To bewail one is to mourn them all. But I find it particularly disheartening that Je t’aime, je t’aime, a masterpiece by one of the living gods of cinema has yet to be extended such grace. From the very beginning, the film was beset by release problems. It was set to premiere at the 1968 Cannes film festival, but due to the sociopolitical tumult of that May, along with filmmakers’ solidarity with the students/workers, the festival was called off. When finally released, it was a major commercial flop.

The story is fairly simple: Claude (Claude Rich) attempts suicide, fails, and is then recruited by a group of scientists experimenting in time travel. They have figured out a way to send mice back in time for a minute, so the next logical step is a human specimen. Claude agrees to serve as a test case because, heck, he doesn’t much care for life anymore. But something goes wrong, and he starts continuously looping back in time. Through the relived fragments of the past we see the last decade of his life and are slowly able to put the fractured pieces together, tracing the rapturous highs and turbulent lows of his relationship with his girlfriend Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot).

Claude Rich has a face that was meant for cinema, not because it is stunningly handsome, but because it is so intensely human. He does not have the chiseled physique of an Alain Delon or a Pierre Girard, but as random a stroke of genetic luck as good looks are, so too are the faces whose muscles seem attuned to expressing every crease of their beholder’s being. Rich’s face is a gateway beyond the flesh and bone, to the throbbing, pained center of humanity at his core. In the beginning, Resnais keeps Claude from view (there are two notable conversation scenes that eschew shot/reverse-shot editing—when Claude speaks it cuts back to a wide-shot in which he’s placed at a 3/4 turn or with his back completely to the camera), maybe because a man who is determined to die has but a limited presence in this world. But by the time he decides to undergo the experiment, and then goes into the memory/past, he has a resolute on-screen presence.

Claude is a man in the present reliving the past, tragically locked into experiencing the same petty arguments, the mistakes, and the tragedy that drove him to suicide. While Claude is literally stuck in the past, this touches upon a greater truth of humanity. For don’t we all, through the course of the day, reflect upon what happened yesterday, last week, ten years ago? And don’t we flash back to painful personal moments, once again giving momentary life to our most egregious mistakes, wishing like hell that we would have acted differently? Like Claude, whose actions may or may not have caused a terrible accident that he can never take back, we’re all haunted by something, trapping ourselves in the past. I won’t give away the details of the ending, but suffice to say that past and present collide with dire results. We must be willing to forgive ourselves and let go if we are to truly live and move forward.

In Stavisky…, it is not the past and present that converge, but the present and future. The film is based on the true story of the rise and inevitable fall of Stavisky (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a Russian-Jewish émigré who runs money laundering schemes and has quite a few of France’s police officials in his back pocket and some on his back. He is married to the lovely Arlette (Anny Duperey), a waif-like beauty, and is surrounded by a dogged group of business assistants as well as the Baron (Charles Boyer).

The story unfolds largely in the present (Stavisky lives large and conjures up ways to get rich while being tracked by a skillful cop played by Claude Rich), but is sometimes interrupted by flashbacks and jumps to the future. By the end, the scenes set in the future of Stavisky’s friends testifying about his actions before a court of law become the present. So really, the present is actually the past and what we thought of as the future is the present. By that logic, fate has sealed tomorrow before we have even lived through today.

Belmondo, an expert if there ever was one at playing the too-cool crooked man, refrains from the general gangstery affectations. No sneers or spitting words out through clenched teeth. His performance is naturalistic, and although Stavisky is a passably interesting character, he does not belong in the pantheon among the Dillingers or the Bonnie and Clydes. My on-and-off interest with Stavisky… may have to do with the fact that, prior to watching the film, I had no clue that he even existed. So the built-in cultural myth and legend of a Jesse James is not there to round out the character/performance; there is no allure in seeing a legend take the shape of a man. Although Belmondo does his best, the character never rises above being a mildly-amusing hypochondriac with a case of megalomania.

The entire narrative is rather flaccid: no tension or suspense. And with the exception of the Baron all of the periphery characters are flat and dull. I was never able to engage with this film on an emotional level, to really be invested in the outcome of Stavisky’s schemes or plight. Some of the narrative coldness could have been remedied by a more-present score. As I always arrive way too early for screenings (because what if the clock at the theater is fast or my watch slow? Yes I’m paranoid, but Saul Bass taught me the importance of opening credits), I had ample time to pick up on snippets of conversation. There were at least three hushed dialogues expounding upon the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim’s score. Since Sondheim is big news, I was quite excited: unfortunately, needlessly so. Resnais largely holds the score at bay, so where emotionality could have been engendered by orchestral sweeps, we are left with silence. Stavisky… works on the level of an experiment in time, but as a rousing crime story, not so much.

Mon Oncle d’Amerique seamlessly interweaves fiction and documentary. The documentary portion is comprised of interviews with physician and philosopher Henri Laborit as he discusses theories on human behavior and brain function. These theories come to inform and enrich the fictional narrative. The lives of the three protagonists—Janine (Nicole Garcia) an actress, Jean (Roger Pierre) a TV network developer/writer and René (Gérard Depardieu) a factory manager—intersect: Janine and Jean are lovers, while Janine and René engage in business dealings. The film begins by briefly highlighting the major moments as well as trivialities of each character’s life; then we are brought back to the beginning and actually get to watch what was previously mentioned come to life.

One of the film’s most delightful elements is that each person closely identifies with a different French cinema star: Janine with Jean Marais, Jean with Danielle Darrieux, and René with Jean Gabin. In moments of tension Resnais frequently cuts to scenes from those actors’ films, their gestures perfectly mirroring and evoking the feelings of the protagonists. An angry René, just about to lose his cool, cuts to a raving Jean Gabin. Sometimes when we can’t express our emotions it’s best to leave it to our cinematic alter-egos—they can handle life so much more artfully.

Near the end of the film, Laborit discusses a theory on behavior (in response to negative stimulus we either change our environment, fight against those that are trapped in the situation with us, or are totally passive, which leads to physical ailments) that is alternately illustrated by intercutting electric-shock experiments on lab rats and previous scenes from the characters’ lives in which they too exemplify the applicability of the theory. Laborit also proposes that, from the moment we are born, we are programmed on how to behave and function within society. Thus the lines between the past and future are tenuous; not only through the non-linearity of the film’s storytelling, but via the suggestion that our personal past, as well as the collective and assimilated past of humanity, pre-programs and in a way limits our future. Unless we can attain some sort of self-awareness and gain perspective on our brain functions then, to use another rodent metaphor, we will forever be hamsters spinning aimlessly on wheels.

Veronika Ferdman is a student at USC, earning BA’s in Philosophy and Critical Studies-Film.