BEIRUT

Culture

‘Coeurs’ and the late style of Resnais

BEIRUT: “Late style” is a term used to describe the output of older artists. It’s assumed that, with the passage of time and the accumulation of experience, composers, painters, filmmakers and the like outgrow the brash egoism that often characterizes more youthful work.

Late style can express itself as a relaxed resignation about those things against which the youthful artist can expend a good deal of creative energy railing – which some consider “wisdom,” others complacency. As Edward Said observed in his writings on the subject, old age can also provoke “intransigence, difficulty and contradiction.”

These contentious notions of late style can be useful when confronted with an oeuvre as long-lived and wide-ranging as that of Alain Resnais, nowadays the subject of the retrospective “La mémoire et l’imaginaire.”

Resnais’ renowned earlier works, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959), for instance, and “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961), are so infused with the spirit of formal experimentation that the emotional content of the actors’ portrayals are constantly challenged by the auteur’s narrative rigor.

Watching these classics can be a dizzying experience for 21st-century audiences, slack-jawed from following the well-worn tracks of mainstream cinema practice.

A marked difference in tone is evident by a mid-career work like Resnais’ “Mon Oncle d’Amerique” (1980).

Here, three principal characters are driven by diverse socio-cultural circumstances to collide, like free radicals in a particle accelerator. By the time their collision takes place – a little more than halfway through the film – it forms a clot of sentimentality that sinks, indigestible, to the bottom of the soup pot that (in an unforgivable mixing of metaphors) the film sadly becomes.

Before the film reaches that gooey point, though, Resnais delights in commenting on the tiresome predictability of it all, employing the chuckle-inducing behavioralist metaphor of the lab rat – complete with key scenes restaged with rodent-headed actors.

By the time Resnais’ audience reaches “On connait la chanson” (1997), the filmmaker has embraced that most saccharine of exhausted narrative forms: the musical. Late-style optimists may read this gesture as an effort to de-center the tedium of human interchange – a song, as the title reminds us, that we all know – and the tedious conventions of narrative realism that bind it.

Then again, Resnais may simply have wanted to make an entertainment.

“On connait la chanson” is an ensemble love story that hinges on a real estate transaction. It would be nice to imagine (in the manner of a late style optimist) that, by the mid-2000s, the auteur could find no better way to drive the nail into the coffin lid of our impoverished narrative imagination than by retailing another real estate-centered story, this time without the musical accompaniment.

This brings us to “Coeurs” (Hearts), Resnais’ 2006 feature, which screens at the Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Tuesday evening.

Based on the Alan Ayckbourn play “Private Fears in Public Places,” the story commences with Nicole (Laura Morante) berating her estate agent Thierry (André Dussollier) that the flat he’s showing her isn’t what she wants.

A strong and beautiful woman of indeterminate job description and discerning taste, Nicole explains that the flat requires a spare room, a study to accommodate her fiancé Dan (Lambert Wilson).

A veteran army officer drummed out of the service because of the questionable activities of his men, Dan has spent six months languishing in whiskey-sodden self-pity, which means he spends far less time with Nicole than he does with Lionel (Pierre Arditi).

The long-suffering barman at the hotel bar Dan frequents for his afternoon-to-evening booze sessions, Lionel absorbs Dan’s litany of complaint with the polite impatience of a man who seems to have witnessed such self-destructive behavior too many times to invest any more energy in it.

Thierry, Nicole’s somewhat ineffectual estate agent, lives with the lovely, and much younger, Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré). For reasons that reflect Resnais’ (or perhaps Ayckbourn’s) storytelling sensibilities, Gaëlle appears at first to be Thierry’s wife, then his sister, then possibly his wife again.

In any case, Gaëlle seems in the market for different male companionship. She spends her evenings at a café where everyone else seems to be a couple, book in hand and a conspicuous flower – the sort of thing you wear to signal your presence to someone you’ve never met – adorning her lapel.

Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), Thierry’s colleague at work, is a beautifully ageing woman who strikes him as lovely but (owing to her devout Christianity) boring.

His opinion of her is more or less confirmed when Charlotte presents Thierry with a VHS tape-recording of her favorite television program, “Songs that Changed My Life.” Then, after a few seconds of snow, he is intrigued to find the balance of tape is devoted to a woman of Charlotte’s dimensions doing a strip tease.

For her part, Charlotte spends her evening hours working as a caregiver for the aged. She takes a job with Lionel, who lives with his bed-ridden father Arthur (Claude Rich). Arthur is impossible, naturally, and after several intolerable evenings of his abuse and insults, Charlotte decides to deploy her secret weapon for quietening down troublesome men.

Etcetera, etcetera.

As happens with this sort of comedy of manners, members of all these discrete clusters of human weakness glance off one another and sometimes adhere.

When reassuringly written, such ensemble plots tend to end with each shattered relationship complemented by a happy new coupling.

If sculpted by the hand that crafted works like “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year in Marienbad,” stories like “Coeurs” can remind cineplex audiences that films need not be formally innovative to depict loneliness and emotional desolation.

“Coeurs” screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. “La mémoire et l’imaginaire,” continues until Jan. 30. All films have English subtitles. See www.metropoliscinema.net

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 29, 2013, on page 16.

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