Private Fears in Public Places

Mild Mannered
By Nick Pinkerton

Private Fears in Public Places
Dir. Alain Resnais, France

A NYFF wouldn’t be complete, it seems, without an obligatory slot-filling by one of the "Old Masters" of the Sixties art house—this year, that role’s taken by 84-year-old Alain Resnais, presenting his Private Fears in Public Places . The fecundity of that bygone stretch of world cinema history—whose romantic self-mythology has been perpetuated by Boomer filmmakers, journalists, and professors—combined with the oft-lengthy lifespan of the urban intellectual, only suggests that we’ll be seeing late period work from the various national New Waves for decades to come; a 2036 Q&A with Claude Chabrol’s jarred brain does not seem out of the question.

Without supposing to over-simplify the common features of these old men’s movies, I will say that when your reputation’s been established for a half-century, and you’ve enjoyed a steady influx of government subsidies, a sense of something--urgency, the will to impress--will necessarily evacuate your work. This must be regarded as a unique and perilous privilege for viewer and filmmaker alike; there is the relief of leaving the midway jostle of the contemporary art house ("Step right up folks! Un-simulated sex! Structural wizardry! An’ folks, ya’ won’t believe dis cinematographee!"), but then, there is such a thing as coasting...

If Private Fears in Public Places came without the Alain Resnais imprimatur attached, nobody would dream of screening it outside the Francophone market—this isn’t a slam on the movie, but it’s worth noting. The damnation of faint praise is much spoken of, but there’s no other sort of compliment appropriate to Resnais’s latest, adapted from the British playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourne’s 2004 stage production, a work which shows no designs on being anything more than faint filmmaking—or "gentle," if you’re feeling generous. Its tone is benevolent and melancholy, it features a cast of firmly controlled, careful performances, and it takes an earnest, gawky stab at humor that, while never good for more than a ripple of polite titters, is certainly affable enough.

Resnais, along with French scenarist and playwright Jean-Michel Ribes, has transposed Ayckbourne’s play to Paris, where it takes places in the midst of an unceasing snowfall; after a swooping introductory shot, all the action moves indoors, alternating between a handful of tastefully decorated apartments, while the steady digital blizzard carries on outside. Shot by Eric Gautier, who’s made his name in collaborations with Assayas, Desplechin, and Chereau, the film lets off a comfortable soft-edged glow—its staid widescreen is never quite ravishing, but generally cozy.

It’s apt, for Private Fears in Public Places is a film of homebodies, of people huddled into very modest lives, moving along the same habitual channels: office, home, maybe a trip to the bar; one bibulous character’s drinking has the trappings of a ritual—"the regular," then off to the bathroom. The movie’s theatrical origins probably account for no small part of its chartered range—barring a couple of tricky overhead shots and the film’s distinctive "curtain" effect, a rush of snowflakes that comes in over most every cross-fade, it would appear that little innovation went into making this material more screen-specific.

The film stars a six-part ensemble, three men, three women, all single—or at least unhappy in love, all tangentially connected, all experiencing a few days of routine heartsickness. Thierry (Andre Dussolier) is a real-estate agent in late middle-age who imagines—the truth of the matter stays ambiguous—that his outspokenly Christian co-worker, Charlotte (Sabine Azema, Resnais’ companion), is enacting a campaign of covert seduction by "accidentally" giving him glimpses of her homemade striptease videos. After showing flats to a young couple on the verge of dissolution (her, regarding a window that services two bedrooms: "Either they freeze together or they both stifle"), a dishonorably discharged career military man, Dan (Lambert Wilson), and his fiancée (Laura Morante), Thierry goes home to his lovely, improbably younger sister, Gaelle (Isabelle Carre), who spends her nights improbably being stood up in cafes by internet dates—until she meets up with a rebounding Dan, at the latter’s habitual hang-out, a bar tended by Lionel (Pierre Arditi), whose profane, doddering father Charlotte has been looking after.

For awhile it seems like the film is winding its way toward a final assignation of couplings as the principles prod slightly at one another, slacken their vigilance just enough to allow someone else a glimpse of their close-guarded pains—but everyone sleeps alone in the end. The intimacies flit by, then disappear, under circumstance or misunderstanding; I detect an enervated echo of Lubitsch’s sublime The Shop Around the Corner rattling through Resnais’ movie: the charming artifice of the snow, the understanding of happiness as something extraordinarily fragile that’s just as easily missed as not.

If you can forgive the dippiness of the film’s "naughty" passages—the potty-mouthed senior citizen is ripe for retirement as a go-to comic archetype, and it’s difficult to believe that a 60-year old man, in an age of glossy blowjobs on display at every newsstand, could be paralyzed into teenaged gawping by a glimpse of lingerie—there is enough to admire here. The film is full of unhysterical but deeply felt little scenes, gingerly handled by a cast of veterans who should be mostly unfamiliar but welcome to the American viewer—watching recent French imports, you could be forgiven for believing that there are only about twelve actors at work in the industry (Wilson, unexpectedly tender in the awkwardness of his blind date, is especially touching). It’s an accomplishment in itself to keep six human lives in the air onscreen, so that we don’t feel trepidation at traveling between plotlines (Magnolia’s structure felt like cinematic Russian Roulette, with five chambers filled); to the film’s credit, everybody’s about as interesting as everybody else here.

So 120 minutes passed, my killer instinct was gradually mollycoddled into submission by this warm blanket of celluloid, and I surrendered to its scanty charm. It’s a movie so at ease with its own mildness—it’s almost completely without pretense, never overextends itself, keeps the volume at a comfortable level... and is about as boring to talk about as staying home from work with a cough and watching Newhart reruns. "What a nice little movie," is all I can say—with the whisper of condemnation that implies.