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A FilmExposed Film Review

Private Fears in Public Places

Private Fears in Public Places

Dir: Alain Resnais, France, 2006, 120mins, French with subtitles
Cast: Sabine Azéma, Lambert Wilson, André Dussolier, Pierre Arditi, Laura Morante, Isabelle Carré, Claude Rich

Nicole (Morante) is frustrated by Dan (Wilson); Theirry (Dussolier) is infatuated with his secretary Charlotte (Azéma); his sister Gaëlle (Carré) is seeking love; Lionel (Arditi) works in a bar; Dan confides in Lionel; Dan and Nicole separate; Dan meets Gaëlle; Charlotte looks after Lionel’s dad Arthur (Rich); and all are alone.

Alain Resnais’s latest film was developed from an Alan Ayckbourn play of the same name; it was released in France under the more sentimental title Coeurs and, thanks to a skilful adaptation, it translates very well to contemporary Paris. It is an ensemble piece, with many of Resnais’ regulars taking the lead roles – this is, unquestionably, a stellar cast. The subject is emotional isolation in contemporary urban society and Resnais explores the ways in which a group of adults – ranging from a 30something woman to an old man at death’s door – attempt to connect with others, as friends or lovers. The exploration of these themes is very zeitgeisty, but Resnais also works within the more generalising traditions of French existentialism. These problems are cross-generational; they don’t only effect the (relatively) young, but are indicative of a much wider socio-emotional malaise.

Private Fears in Public Places is also lots of fun, and Resnais opens as he means to go on – with surreal comedy. Theirry, an estate agent, is showing Nicole around a flat, trying to make the best of a bad job. These aren’t three rooms, she sharply remonstrates, but two, the second is partitioned, the ‘rooms’ even share a window. The camera pulls back and up, revealing them to be on set. Partitions dominate other interiors. Dan and Lionel are divided by the bar itself, which is reinforced by Lionel’s cool professionalism; back at the office, Theirry and Charlotte interact around the glass partition that marks off their work spaces. Dussollier’s magnificently-huge face continuously breaks into smiles, as Theirry attempts to charm the demure Charlotte; Azéma plays Charlotte beautifully, fingering her cross with just a hint of coy satisfaction. Charlotte’s idea of God’s work, we soon discover, is hilariously and enigmatically unconventional.

This is a gentle, empathetic film, made more so by the soft snow that falls throughout. La neige gives the film a festive, fairy tale aura, that Resnais trademark feel for the almost-real. Snow blankets these seven characters together, signifying the transience of human relations – a unique beauty that so quickly dissolves – and the Joycean symbolism of snow as a universal, falling equally upon all. In a stand-out scene, almost a dream sequence, Lionel and Charlotte connect, not through sex, but through understanding, and together the snow penetrates their interior, both literally and figuratively. But it is the plight of Gaëlle, on a string of blind dates, which lingers in the mind. Beautifully played by Carré, Gaëlle remains hopeful and we, shown the way by Resnais’ always benevolent eye, wish her well.

In short, Private Fears in Public Places is a low-key masterpiece and an extraordinary testimony to the continuing vitality and creative intelligence of a director who has been in the business nearly fifty years.


Matt Kelly

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