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Coeurs (Private fears in Public Places) – warmth in the winter of love

resnais resonates

resnais resonates

Coeurs – Private Fears In Public Places – Alan Resnais

A truly wise film. In every sense. Director Resnais almost 50 years on from Hiroshima Mon Amour assembles with masterly assurance all the cinematic arts to serve his narrative and emotional purpose: from award-winning Eric Gauthier’s evocative cinematography; through precise, unobtrusive editing; a subtle enhancing musical score from Mark Snow; and simply superb performances from his 6 main players. But technique aside, Coeurs also reveals great emotional wisdom in the way Resnais approaches his narrative.

In spirit Coeurs is irreducibly French. In the sense that almost uniquely, the French understand that sexuality and love are indivisibly linked and that both are far too serious to be taken seriously. It comes as a surprise therefore to discover that this delightful exploration of what we might call the Winter of love, is based upon a 2004 play by English playwright Alan Ayckbourn – Private Fears In Public Places. I don’t know the play but my hunch is that if the emotional insightfulness is typical Ayckbourn, the lightness of tone, the wry, teasing humour and gentle sadness of Coeurs comes from Resnais. It is hard to see how Resnais’ take on these four interlocking stories of the loneliness of the search for love, would play to English theatre audiences. One could imagine an altogether edgier, more combative, sharper humour being used to make the action big enough for the stage. The unique intimacy the camera and naturalistic sound offer, enable Resnais to take us right inside the thoughts and feelings of his characters. What we might call innocent voyeurism. As a true filmmaker, Resnais is able to show us the interior emotional sadness and conflict of his characters which on a stage must be projected. This obviously has a profound affect on acting performance, beautifully realised by all the actors in Coeurs.

Avuncular, patrician, Thierry (Andre Dussollier) still attractive in his 60s, lives with his sister Gaelle (Isabelle Caret). Of Thierry’s past relationships we know nothing but it is clear from Gaelle’s resort to computer dating that despite also being very attractive, perhaps in her mid-30s, her desire for a partner has taken on a sense of urgency. Thierry is an estate agent working closely each day with colleague Charlotte. Charlotte, played by the superb Sabine Azema (Resnais’ real-life companion) is quirkily, agelessly attractive, with an earthy sexiness that is oddly enhanced rather than belied by her manifestly sincere Christian faith.

The film opens with Thierry showing a flat to a very demanding customer Nicole (Laura Morante – seen recently in Moliere). Beautiful, stylish, articulate and with no assertiveness problems, Nicole witheringly demolishes all of Thierry’s desperate but clearly doomed efforts at a sales pitch. It emerges that Nicole’s fiancé Dan has failed to show up and one feels this is the cause of poor Thierry’s professional demolition. It appears that the flat must include a study for the absent Dan. Latching desperately onto a criterion he can speak to, Thierry’s confidence is dashed again when it emerges that Dan doesn’t want a study because he needs one, has anything purposeful to do in one – but just sort of wants one. A bit like people who casually strew impressive looking intellectual books they’ve never read around their lounge to impress visitors of their erudition.

Dan, it emerges has just been thrown out of the Army for failing as a commissioned officer to prevent misconduct by those beneath him rather than for perpetrating it himself. Dan as we shall see is likeable but dumb. As soon as we discover him at his appointed and dedicated daily place at the bar in a local hotel, we immediately entertain serious doubts about Nicole’s future married bliss with him. Dan’s every alcoholic requirement and progressively incoherent conversational need is served by Lionel, professional barman to his fingertips. Lionel lives alone save for his diabolically awful, impossibly demanding bed-ridden father Arthur who is assiduously working his way through a succession of nurse/carers the desperate Lionel gets for him with all the dedication Dan is showing for Lionel’s stock of Scotch.

Thierry is touched when Charlotte, apparently anxious to cheer him up gives him a video tape supposedly of favourite religious and classical songs of celebrities. A sort of Songs of The Praiseworthy. Politeness outweighing enthusiasm, Thierry takes the tape. Playing it at home his bored expression segues into stunned incredulity as Onward Christian Soldiers gives way to the more secular appeal of rock music accompanying a suspendered, increasingly naked woman with an uncanny resemblance to chaste Charlotte. Dussollier’s playing of this scene is simply wonderful. An April day of changing emotions informs his expression as we see him in close up, having had just a glimpse of what he is seeing, but accompanied by all the grotesquely exaggerated sounds of porn-movie orgasms. (‘Orgasm’ has no singular form in porn movies. So I’m told) Thierry is the beneficiary of one more of these intoxicating if unorthodox gifts of Christian charity before, understandably but disastrously he misinterprets Charlotte’s motivation and tries to kiss her. She indignantly rebuffs him. So Thierry becomes not the first man ever to be totally bemused, confused and downright bewildered at confusing female sexual signals,

Drunken Dan of whom Nicole, when asked by Thierry “what’s he in?” replies “limbo,” is meantime getting the heave-ho by his always unlikely partner. Possessing all the emotional depth of an ice cube he toddles off to play the field and lo and behold computer-dating hooks him up with Gaelle. Gaelle and Dan hit it off and get progressively drunk under the resigned but paternalistic gaze of Lionel. Crazy Christian Charlotte meanwhile is acting as carer to awful Arthur while Lionel is mid-wifing Dan and Gaelle’s fledgling relationship. After 3 nights of being covered with hot soup, flying baguettes and scabrous abuse, the insouciant Charlotte, dressed in a sexy black stripper outfit shocks Arthur with a valedictory Strip show to die for – a debt he duly honours a few hours later, courtesy of a heart attack, the sadness of which event is apparently softened by a fixed but uncharacteristic smile on his face.

I won’t spoil this wonderfully woven cloth of pathos, humour, sadness and irony by saying how these narrative strands unwind. The humour is more the deep inner chuckle of recognition, than laugh aloud broadness. The pathos and sadness, rich in sentiment skilfully avoids the fatal pitfall of sentimentality. The sense of the Winter of love, for even the younger Nicole and Dan are in the last season of their love, is visually represented by Resnais with many scenes backdropped by falling snow. As a metaphor perhaps a touch literal, but still beautifully effective, first in establishing a kind of quiet but persistent pace to the piece; and then a sense of the coldness of loneliness from which each character in their own distinctive way seeks the warmth and comfort of love and sexual satisfaction. This is a film by an octogenarian master director, displaying great wisdom and the suggestion that perhaps the embers of passion never quite die.

A delight.


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