Here's one no one could have seen coming. Alain Resnais, at the stately age of 84, comes back from a life of harrowing Holocaust documentaries and existential meditations to direct a winter-set play adaptation with a modest multi-narrative pull. Swept with snow-flurry transitions and sunken-in rom-com dynamics, Private Fears in Public Places, besides being the filmmaker's best work since 1977's Providence, brings theatrical adaptation to a new level of complexity and imagination.
It all starts with Thierry (the great André Dussollier), a realtor trying to find an apartment for Nicole (Laura Morante) and her contemptible husband Dan (Lambert Wilson). Thierry is harboring yearnings for his secretary Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), whose scattershot persona lends itself both to the religious and the carnal. Charlotte's night-job finds her taking care of the curmudgeonly father of bartender Lionel (Pierre Arditi) while he is serving drinks to Dan and Thierry's sister Gaelle (Isabelle Carre) at a classy hotel bar. All of this is connected by Charlotte's bible, a mysterious videotape of a woman go-go dancing and the search for a perfect apartment.
Unlike P.T. Anderson or Alejandro González Iñárritu, Resnais keeps an unprecedented humility to his interwoven storylines, not boasting that he can understand humanity nor save the world. Rather, Private Fears has its intuition directed at the small whoopsie-daisies of life and "fate." Based on a play by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, the characters all exist in insular states, both emotionally and literally, which gives Resnais a challenge that he matches with great enthusiasm.
Recent interviews have opened Resnais up as a great admirer of television directors like the great Kim Manners, who is best known for his work on The X-Files. Thinking like small-screen directors, Resnais rarely embellishes the outward element of the world, only accentuating the snow that drifts indifferently in and out of his squared frame. His interest lies in the interiors that bathe his characters and their moods. Whether it's the Clockwork Orange neons that outline Lionel's bar or the post-modern, circular nature of Thierry's office, Resnais has created a ballet of inward mis-en-scene, throwing up walls made of beads and opaque glass at every turn.
The theatricality of the film is evident, but unlike recent adaptations (Mike Nichols' Closer), Resnais' imagery gives way to an uncanny fluidity in both dialogue and character development. Like animals in designated habitats, these characters sniff around their periphery in hopes of finding something new, but ultimately relinquish themselves to their despair and loneliness. They try to connect with one another, only to be foiled by the neuroses and self-effacing nature of the middle-aged mindset. The architecture of each scene echoes this idea: finding someone worth your time never gets easier and always involves ample helpings of humiliation. Resnais, at the same time furthering his style and ability, understands this notion and sets it to the screen with resolve and maturity. In these days of flash-and-bang filmmaking, the poetic Resnais is a rare breed and essential to cinema.
How about a whiskey sour?