Private Fears in Public Spaces (Coeurs) – Alain Resnais – Fr 2006 - Sabine Azema Andre Dussollier
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 18 Aug 07 Ticket Price £6-20
With its soft wry humour and humanistic take on contemporary social mores, Private Fears in Public Spaces(Coeurs) feels like an old man’s film. The question is whether Resnais has anything further to commit to film: whether he still has real energy to add to his own oeuvre and to say something to us about our situation. Otherwise why bother. Otherwise he is simply going through a gestural process of demonstrating the vacuous art of film making.
Coeurs is based on a theatrical text by Alan Ayckbourn whose play gives the film its English title. Alan Ayckbourn is the dramatist of middle England whose plays characterised by an admix of both vicious and gentle humour explore the social and consumerist pretensions of his characters. The plays of his that I have seen certainly explore the dark areas of the modern bourgeois psyche but do so in the manner which is contrived to allow his audience to be complicit in their own dramas and invites a sort of empathic collusion with the characters that is the basis of their success. The plays are all written for the proscenium arch and usually involve a small number of sets. The sets are central to Ayckbourn’s work as the axes about which the action revolves and they comprise interior settings familiar to a middle class audience. The theatrical devices utilised are contrived coincident, the doors in the scenery opening and closing to admit unexpected presences and brutal quasi slack-stick accidents. It is a theatre of farce: sometimes of a high order that artfully throws into high relief both the devilish mechanisms by which we live and at the same time tacitly understands and lends them a certain order and measure of ritual theatric expiation.
This is the territory that Resnais has chosen to explore. Ayckbourn is a very English writer/director who writes for the audience of his Scarborough theatre. His characters are defined by physical and attitudinal reflexes that make them immediately familiar to the Yorkshire audience. The strength of Ayckbourn’s dramatic writing is in releasing in his characters forms of recognisable idiosyncrasies and ways of seeing things wrapped up in contemporary settings. Resnais has to transpose this filmically into the otherness of his chosen social milieu – Paris. A city that has its own iconic attitudes traditions, and social and consumerist mores.
Coeurs introduces a central filmic idea with his opening shot – a track from high above a shimmering white Paris through the falling snow to an upper balcony of a beaux arts building, an apartment which Thierry the estate agent is showing to his client Nicole. Resnais’ concern is with interiors, empty shells which we fill with our desires. Coeurs opens up to a world that revolves about the estate agent and the idea of the search: search for right apartment, the search for the right partner, the search for passion in an world increasingly hemmed in by blandness.
The film is an exploring of interiority. Exteriors for the bourgeois city dweller who travels from place to place in the car, are little more than simple visual effects, a sort of child’s transparent bubble world where a quick shake induces a gentle fall of snow. A pleasing visual simulacrum. There are no exterior shots in Coeurs except the opening track so the viewers are seeing the outside world from within the bubble lives of the characters and their interior worlds. Between each shot, the hand of Resnais shakes the bubble and in an inverse arrangement of the child’ toy, it is on the outside the bubble where the snow gently flutters down.
In common with other of his films the settings in Coeurs are a key expressive component embedded at the core of the film. Resnais moves through a number of different types of bourgeois interior urban space. Firstly the empty and unfulfilled spaces of the uninhabited apartments through which Nicole wanders as an increasingly lost soul becoming ever more detached from the belief system that sustains her. The empty apartments are finally shot from overhead increasing the sense in which they are simply skeletal structures waiting to be fleshed out by our yearnings. Secondly the public spaces such as the space ship bar (presided over by the extraterrestrial Lionel) whose interior fantasies and multiplicities of plane and colour are designed to make us believe we exist in another dimension on another planet: not on earth. And finally the domestic home interiors which intensify either our sense of emptiness or dissatisfaction. Like the video of Charlotte’s room, full replete with dancing headless bodies. Interior architecture as gaseous neon mirrors holding up for our inspection our reflection as a parade of souls wandering through an increasingly detached inconsequential world. Resnais makes particular use of colour as a signifier of emptiness. Colour is primal. A biological indicator of states of which we should have awareness. Danger - safety - opaqueness – transparency – spirituality - carnality are all states or conditions that can be suggested by colour. But in modern interiors colours seems to exist for their own sake, for pure visual effect, to create illusion to hold reality at bay. The signification of colour has been transformed in contemporary settings a signifier if hazy gaseous vacuity.
If Resnais chooses his settings for their expressive potential it is the characters and scripts which have enabled the settings to resonate and give form to the work. The man and the woman in Hiroshima, the two men and the woman in Marienbad the character in Providence all created a dynamic immanent relationship with space and place allowing the film to move out of the constraints of action and penetrate real adjacent but less tangible realms such as time and memory. Nothing like this happens in Coeurs. The more the film progresses the more it seems to fall apart. Resnais seems trapped in Ayckbourn’s little interrelated stories unable to free himself from the trite machinations of plot and character.
The characters are deterritorialised personas who have drifted from the wings of Ackbourn’s Scarborough theatre and have been trapped in a script which fails to locate them as Parisians. The consequence is that they do not appear so much as lost souls but rather as unconvincing actors in unconvincing roles. The characters – with the possible exception of Charlotte – about whom there is a coy reticence – all seem to simply go through the motions of pretending to play their roles. Something in the film in the relation of the actors to their script and their settings simply breaks down as the plotting becomes less and less convincing and trapped in empty thespian gestures. At this point the film stops. The developed relationship between Dan and Nicole is particularly weak as it fails to resolve the tension between settings and emotionally contrived demands of the relationship. The film produces in the end a decontextualised nexus between setting script and characters. In short it goes nowhere.
The strongest item in the film is the 1930’s poster advertising Scarborough which Thierry and Gail have in their living room. I kept on looking at this displaced ‘art’ and wondered why it was there – at this point I hadn’t seen the script was based n Ayckbourn’s play. I thought at first that it was of a piece with a film whose theme was displacement. But by the end, like the fluttering snow motif the poster had degenerated into a mechanical response of a director who was an old man with nothing to say, and with just a few jokes to leaven out his story.