Private Fears In Public Places

2006, Movie, NR, 120 mins


The first change French filmmaker Alain Resnais made to U.K. playwright Alan Ayckbourn's story of lonely people not quite connecting in handsomely appointed bars, restaurants and offices, was to move it to Paris. The second, more important change was to subtly shift its tone from rueful comedy with tragic overtones to low-key tragedy with comic touches. The result is at once chilly and fragilely hopeful.

Paris is in the grip of a snowstorm, and brittle, high-strung Nicole (Laura Morante) and her unemployed fiance, Dan (Lambert Wilson), who recently left the military under a cloud, are looking for a larger apartment. Or rather, Nicole and her Realtor, Thierry (Andre Dussollier), are looking, while Dan drinks away the day at a chic hotel bar, bending the ear of bartender Lionel (Pierre Arditi). Drab, deeply religious Charlotte (Sabine Azema), who works with Thierry, hides a deep well of unhappiness beneath a veneer of cheery small talk. Thierry interprets her cheery chatter as a form of low-key flirtation and agrees to watch a tape of her favorite religious TV program, "The Song That Changed My Life." Imagine his surprise when the show is followed by a sexy amateur striptease featuring a woman whose face is always carefully out of frame. Could it be Charlotte and, if so, is she flirting or did she not realize she was sharing her homemade erotica? Charlotte, meanwhile, takes a second job caring for Lionel's elderly father, an aggressive, deeply disagreeable invalid whose vicious verbal abuse, punctuated by plate-throwing, sorely tries her faith. Dan and Nicole, whose relationship is cracking under the strain of his drinking and refusal to look for civilian work, agree to a temporary separation; Dan, hoping for a little quick romantic adventure, places an ad in the personals; the woman who answers is Thierry's pretty, much-younger sister Gaelle (Isabelle Carre), who has a knack for putting men off — she's forever sitting in restaurants waiting for dates who never show up.

Resnais cuts constantly between the various narrative threads, signaling each change of scene with a superimposed shower of snowflakes; it's a highly artificial device, and a deceptively lovely one that reinforces the sense that all Ayckbourn's characters are slowly succumbing to an emotional chill. The performances are superb, though Carre is an odd, almost perverse choice to play Gaelle: She seems too young to be Dussollier's sister and too beautiful to have been stood up by so many pen pals. Arditi and Azema stand out in this powerhouse ensemble and share one of its loveliest and saddest moments, gently holding hands in the snow. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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