Private Fears in Public Places
2006Director: Alain Resnais
Cast: Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier, Lambert Wilson
et over a few weeks in a wintry, befogged Paris of badly renovated luxury apartments and swank hotel bars, Private Fears in Public Places charts the amorous and familial trials of six locals, in various stages of breaking up, reaching out or taking stock. Nicole (Laura Morante) impatiently hunts for new digs while her inert lover Dan (Lambert Wilson), recently discharged from the army after a scandal, sleeps the day away and is served advice and double scotches by bartender Lionel (Pierre Arditi) every night. Realtor Thierry (André Dussollier) pines for his eccentrically pious co-worker Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), who moonlights as a caregiver for Lionel’s nasty, bedridden father. Thierry’s sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré) pins a red flower to her coat and sits expectantly in a café waiting for her personal-ad respondents to turn up, one of whom is a freshly rebounding Dan…
This familiar, mildly ironic dance of hesitant middle-class types is based on a recent work by the veteran English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who has concocted sophisticated-for-mainstream adult comedies for the West End and Broadway since those venues’ pre-Disney Animatronic Revolution yesteryear. In this Gallicized case, putting sufficient flesh on Ayckbourn’s frequently mundane problem people is sporadically achieved by some solid actors and the 84-year-old New Wave auteur Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Muriel), who glides between plot strands with nearly enough visual grace to sell the goings-on as three-dimensional. But this material needs high comedy or exquisite tenderness to be worth doing well, and all we're left with after two hours is a handsome, generic sigh on mid- to late-life solitude.
Among the players, Dussollier, curiously playing a diffident real-estate man as he did in Resnais’ Same Old Song, occasionally gets to show his skills as a farceur, incrementally fumbling a seduction, or discovering moan-filled porn clips appended to an inspirational music videotape Charlotte has lent Thierry. Another recent Resnais regular, Wilson is unusually Belmondoesque as the ex-soldier, but both his military scandal and what he wants from either Nicole or Gaëlle remain mysterious. As the quirkiest conception in the lot, Azéma imbues her crucifix-wearing spinster with some entertaining tics, but it’s hardly a surprise when her secret life is the most blatantly sensualist. (Creating a holy fool who uses hot videos as a sort of lonely-hearts therapy is such a kooky move in this context that you wish David Cronenberg had been hired for a randier version.)
If Ayckborn’s structure of mostly brief scenes with intercutting storylines was conceived as “cinematic,” Resnais is stagily counterintuitive in confining nearly all the action to studio sets in a widescreen format. He often shoots his fretting or miserable subjects through glass partitions, beaded curtains or hanging plants to suggest their emotional isolation. There’s a telling overhead shot of Nicole pacing in an empty room during one of her myriad apartment viewings that recalls the society-as-lab-rat-maze philosophy of the director’s Mon Oncle d’Amerique, and a frosty view of the cityscape from the glassy realty office’s picture window reinforces it as a cocoon for the odd couple of Charlotte and Thierry. Using a shot of snowfall as a transition throughout, Resnais transforms it to sublime effect for a climactic kitchen conversation between the movie’s two most alienated figures.
Despite a noble fight against the banalities of the play’s crises, one pairing in the cast further handicaps Resnais: Dussollier and Carré as siblings? The actors’ age gap of 25 years begs a minimum of further exposition. There’s a gay revelation about one character at the end that feels more superfluous than either cheap or illuminating. And despite the title, aside from one brouhaha at the hotel bar, nearly all of the fears and miseries are fully expressed in private places (as in INTERIOR – APARTMENT). Given that The Village Voice ’s Michael Feingold reviewed Private Fears’ New York staging in 2005 as “a sort of sociological report given in cartoon terms,” one has to assume the screenplay is all too faithful to its source.
Resnais has said in interviews he assembled the film’s production—his second Ayckbourn adaptation—fairly quickly when another project fell through. If only it had been more of a challenge. It’s hard not to applaud the energy and craft still on display in an artist with Resnais’ resumé, but the choice of “hearts” as his movie’s French title feels mostly like wishful thinking.
Private Fears in Public Places is currently playing in limited release.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-04-30