Providence (1977, Alain Resnais)

Interesting, very good movie but I didn’t love it as much as everyone else seems to. Swept the Cesar awards in non-acting categories (a war film called Le Crabe-Tambour picked up the rest). I’ll bet Dennis Potter enjoyed it, too.

Come to think of it, looking over my screenshots a few weeks after writing the above paragraph, this was a damned complicated movie, and showed more imagination than Je t’aime, je t’aime. Definitely have to see again (and maybe again).


A writer (John Gielgud who, at 73, still had 60-some movies left in him over the next two decades) lives alone (with servants) in his big old house (“Providence”), spends the first two thirds of the movie dreaming up sordid lives for his family members, including his late wife (Elaine Stritch, lately in Romance & Cigarettes), his astro-scientist son (David Warner of Time Bandits), his lawyer son (Dirk Bogarde of The Servant and a bunch of Visconti films) and the lawyer’s wife (Ellen Burstyn of The Exorcist). He re-casts them, giving the lawyer and wife a bitter, joyless marriage, having them hold affairs with the other two. Stritch becomes an older woman with a terminal illness and Warner becomes a free man unsuccessfully prosecuted for murder. Scenes are re-written halfway through – Gielgud’s voice will narrate the action, then rethink things and suddenly characters will leave the scene or change their mind or the whole thing will start over with a different ending. So very Resnais-like, eh? Meanwhile, the writer himself is stumbling around the house at night, drinking, shitting, falling down, breaking things and griping about his ill health.

In the morning, he’s outside, it’s his 78th birthday, and his two sons and the lawyer’s lovely wife have a happy family visit, with dinner and gifts and happy memories. There’s a little bitterness, mentioning the writer’s wife who killed herself after diagnosed with a fatal disease, but overall it’s happy and serene, leaving us to wonder how much of the family problems and awful behavior from the first half of the movie were completely invented by the writer, and how much is actually there under the surface.


I’d thought I would enjoy six-time oscar-nominee Ellen Burstyn’s performance more, but maybe it suffered a bit from having just watched Rivette’s ladies in Love on the Ground – she seemed like the weakest link here, speaking as if she’d just received a script. Watching with headphones, the sound mix wasn’t so good either, but then neither was the quality of my downloaded movie very good, so this wasn’t optimal viewing experience. Liked the movie, fun to watch a bitter old man provide amused commentary on his own nightmares and imaginations, just didn’t blow me away.

Denis Lawson, who played the imaginary footballer (David Warner’s brother), appeared later the same year as Wedge Antilles in Star Wars, the film that helped decimate the world market for fancypants French films such as this one. In 1977 subtitles hadn’t been invented yet, so those watching in France heard the dubbed-in voices of actors Claude Dauphin (Le Plaisir), Francois Perier (Stavisky), Nelly Borgeaud (Mon oncle d’Amérique) and Gerard Depardieu.


Gielgud speaks the director’s thoughts: “It’s been said about my work that the search for style has often resulted in a want of feeling. However I’d put it another way, I’d say that style is feeling, in its most elegant and economic expression.”

Some woman wrote an article arguing that the ending is a dream also, but I’d have to pay $12 to read the full thing online.

There are weird flashes to military police and concentration camps, maybe explained by this American Cinematheque quote: “A fascinating visual tour de force exploring the creative process, offset by references to the nightmarish political crackdown in Chile in the late 1970’s.”

Ellen Burstyn:

V. Canby for NY Times did not like it: “The old man, it’s soon obvious, has imposed on these perfectly decent folk all of his own fears and guilts about a lifetime spent in philandering, selfishness, disinterest in his family, while he enjoyed a reputation as a writer he never really deserved. The structure is complicated but sadly un-complex.”

J. Travers on the ending: “Yet there is something about this Resnais-esque view of Paradise that is even more unsettling than the Hell we have just experienced. Which of these two interpretations paints the more accurate picture of the world in which we live? Can we take seriously the saccharine-doused scene of marital fidelity, brotherly friendship and sweet father-son love? Isn’t it more believable that the two sons would be rivals, that the elder son would have a mistress and would bitterly resent his father’s slow and demeaning death? Surely the world shown to us in the first part of the film, the world apparently belonging in the mind of a solitary writer, is the world that is nearer to our own, a far more accurate portrayal of human nature? The second world, of calm, family harmony and stability, is surely an illusion, a distorted memory of a past that never was, could never have been. Which reality do we believe?”