Tide goes out on the new wave
TWO French films this week: one about a veteran French filmmaker from the 1970s ( a fictional character), the other directed by a veteran French filmmaker from the 60s ( a real person, still going strong). One is based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn, one of the leading English playwrights of the 20th century; the other is set in England, the characters speaking English and French. And both can be warmly recommended.
Alain Resnais was a leading figure of the nouvelle vague , the so- called French new wave, whose beginnings may be dated from 1959, when art- house audiences ( your reviewer included) were paying dutiful tribute to Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and other certified Resnais masterpieces without quite knowing what to make of them. Time has shown that you can’t keep a good nouvelle surfie out of the water.
I remember being enthusiastic about Resnais’s durability when reviewing Melo ( 1986), his melodramatic adaptation of a 20s play about a wife who kills herself after an extramarital affair. In those days, Resnais was a mere 64. Another ageing French surfie, Jacques Rivette, was well into his 70s when he made that grave and elegant comedy Va Savoir in 2000, earning warm praise from me.
Resnais is now a sprightly 85, and since serendipity is a theme of this review, it’s worth noting that three of the cast of Melo turn up in
, an adaptation of Ayckbourn’s play Private Fears in Public Places , which could just as well be titled Six Characters in Search of Love ( or the Meaning of Life).
It’s a beautiful film, making superb use of the widescreen format, something new wave surfies would once have spurned. But Resnais has moved on since those days, some would say for the better. Coeurs has a clarity, a directness, a thematic cohesion and a rich vein of compassion that strike with the force of revelation. It also has a strong contemporary mood and an edge of dark humour unlike anything Resnais has done before. One of its most memorable characters is never seen: an angry, bedridden old man who bullies all around him and whose kicking feet we glimpse briefly through an open bedroom door.
The setting is a wintry Paris. A powdery snow is falling, framed by windows and office vestibules, its fluttering presence marking each change of scene. The action moves between three or four settings — an estate agent’s office, a glitzy hotel bar, an apartment or two ( as well as some empty ones) — as the lives of the characters interact and overlap in the manner of a Robert Altman film.
Lionel ( Pierre Arditi) is a bartender privy to many a stranger’s conversation. He lives with his invalid father and employs Charlotte ( Sabine Azema) as a part- time carer. Charlotte works by day in a real- estate office with Thierry ( Andre Dusollier), who is looking for a flat for the hardto- please Nicole ( Laura Morante) and her troubled fiance, Dan ( Lambert Wilson). I won’t go into all the permutations of these sad, tangled lives, except to say that each of the six main characters meets only four of the others, the resulting gaps and spaces telling us as much about the fortuitous ironies of life as the contacts themselves.
‘‘ I suppose we all pass through life alone,’’ muses Lionel at the end, which seems a pessimistic judgment on characters whose purpose is to prove that happiness can be attained only if the opposite is true. Coeurs , a tragicomic meditation on loneliness and the need for love, is among the most satisfying films of the year.
* * * I WONDER if Antoine de Caunes had Resnais in mind when he was making Twice Upon a Time . Wasn’t Last Year at Marienbad about a couple who meet by chance after a separation and explore the secrets of their past? And isn’t that ( very roughly) the story of Twice Upon a Time ? Well, very roughly, yes.
The fictional film director is Louis Ruinard ( played by the splendidly hangdog Jean Rochefort), who is about to be presented with a lifetime achievement award at a ceremony in London. Louis is the kind of director, as someone observes approvingly, who ‘‘ makes films that people can understand and want to go and see’’, which may, of course, be a less than respectful reference to the auteurs of the new wave.
When Louis discovers that his award is to be handed over by his former wife, Alice d’Aban- ville ( Charlotte Rampling), whom he hasn’t spoken to since their marriage ended in a wellpublicised divorce 30 years earlier, he gets cold feet. But he still has a soft spot for Alice.
In the days when she starred in his movies, the pair were media celebrities, rather like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor ( or, since this a French film, Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim). Alice is now a respected actor on the London stage, specialising in Shakespearean roles.
At first she refuses to present the award to Louis, but turns up at the last minute to humiliate him with a spectacularly bitchy speech to a celebrity audience.
De Caunes has professed his admiration for the English sense of humour, and this must be the first film in which English and French manners and morals are explored simultaneously ( much as Franco- American relationships were affectionately mocked by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory in their sadly neglected comedy Le Divorce ).
De Caunes’s screenplay is a mixture of English and French dialogue, with Rampling speaking French for most of the film, except when reading Shakespeare. The other ( occasional) French speaker is her second husband, played with his usual sardonic hauteur by the great Ian Richardson, who speaks the kind of English- accented French I can almost follow.
I haven’t seen Rampling or Richardson in a comedy before, and both seem to relish the experience. Richardson’s character, Gaylord, is literally a gay lord: a play on words that in any other film would seem unforgivably trite but in a French film can be passed off as a witticism.
There is no more formidable screen presence than Rampling in full emotional flight ( though Miranda Richardson has come close at times). The cool, caustic sexiness that marked her early appearances has matured into something more ardent and humorous. It’s wonderful to see her animosity towards Louis slowly breaking down under the pressure of his unrepentant charm. Can their love be rekindled?
According to de Caunes, Twice Upon a Time is a light- hearted treatment of a serious subject ( this being, of course, the definition of all good comedy). Things get truly serious with the appearance of Paul ( James Thierree), a character I took at first to be Alice’s toy- boy lover but who turns out to be her son. The comic set pieces include a bizarre dinner party for a vulgar corporate sponsor and a theatrical rehearsal for Titus Andronicus during which Alice goes off the rails. I liked Simon Kunz’s Jeeves- like butler, who takes pleasure in reminding others of the sources of Gaylord’s borrowed quotations.
Beneath its sparkling surface this a sad film, and it’s the kind of sadness that a happy ending cannot quite dispel. Perhaps that makes it more French than English.
Formidable: Charlotte Rampling and Jean Rochefort rediscover their marriage in Twice Upon a Time
Part- time carer: Sabine Azema in Coeurs