Tide goes out on the new wave

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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