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Lost in space

Alain Resnais’s dazzling Private Fears In Public Places
By CHRIS FUJIWARA  |  May 18, 2007
4.0 4.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Coeurs/Private Fears in Public Places

Alain Resnais’s ineffable film has the hallmarks of his marvelous late style — above all, an airy atmosphere in which the human body and the human presence lack weight and appear to drift. Although the film starts (after a majestic and eerie aerial shot of snowbound Paris) with a house hunter pronouncing an apartment “tiny,” Coeurs is a study in excess space. When the same character, bitter Nicole (Laura Morante), observes that the arched ceiling of the apartment has been bisected to make one room into two, the camera rises upward, verifying the fact but also insisting on the æthereality of the space.

Everywhere they go, the characters are surrounded by vastness, bathed in welcoming light. One of the film’s main sets is a dazzling real-estate office, all white, gray, and glass. Nicole’s boyfriend, Dan (Lambert Wilson), a career officer who has lately left the army under a cloud, spends most of his time drinking at an endless neon-and-pastel restaurant. The warmth and spaciousness of a café discourage lonely Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), who pauses in the doorway for a moment before turning and leaving; she gets jostled on her way out by two chatty couples on their way in.

Not just in its scale but in its smoothness and uniformity, the artificial world Resnais creates for his film declares its stage origins. Based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn, Coeurs traces a few days in the lives of several casually linked couples. Every shift from one pair to the next is direct and arbitrary, like a theatrical scene change; Resnais’s cutting is almost subliminal, as if he were trying to respect the visual seamlessness of the experience of watching the play unfold on a stage. The theatricality is essential to Resnais’s mood and meaning. The characters are always performing, always adopting a forced cheeriness or a businesslike aplomb that never quite suits them. Their awkwardness looks more and more desperate, just as the blandness of the lighting and color schemes comes to look less
inviting, more pitiless.

Yet this is a comedy? Well, yes . . . a very sad one, all about solitude and about the interpersonal barriers that Resnais, in another theatrical effect, insists on making real and visible. Such as the curtain of colored beads at Dan’s favorite bar, through which the elegant barman Lionel (Pierre Arditi) spies on his customers. Or the pane of partly translucent glass that divides the workspace of mildmannered, lovesick real-estate agent Thierry (André Dussollier) from that of Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), who may be hiding an alternate life as a striptease artist behind her devout-Christian dottiness.

Throughout the film, snow falls. Usually visible behind scenes, through windows, it overtakes the foreground, like a magic curtain, at every dissolve between scenes. The snow is both the ideal atmosphere for Ayckbourn’s brooding characters and a symbol of their dispersed, drifting state. The closest contact in Coeurs takes place between the unlikely couple of Charlotte and Lionel; for it to happen, the two must shift to an alternate reality, where the snow saturates the interior of the space, covering the table on which Charlotte caresses Lionel’s hand. After this epiphany, the end brings calm, if not reassurance. It’s the most Resnais can offer, and it’s as rarefied as its context — in a word, sublime.

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