I probably say this about every Resnais film, but this has got to be the most wonderful Resnais film. One of his late-period intersecting-lives ensemble pieces, it’s a tribute to Dennis Potter, so the characters lipsync classic pop songs – but despite the fun tunes it’s ultimately a downbeat drama about depression.

Written by two of its lead actors: Jean-Pierre Bacri (balding Nicolas, back in Paris after years away and looking for the perfect apartment) and Agnès Jaoui (Camille, a tour guide who reminds me of Anna Kendrick).

Resnais faves Sabine Azéma (Camille’s sister Odile) and Pierre Arditi play husband and wife – though he’s cheating, and is trying to tell her that he’s leaving.

Odile with her husband:

Odile with her sister:

André Dussollier is a realtor showing flats to Nicolas, stalking Camille on her city tours, and working for Marc (Lambert Wilson), who begins dating André’s beloved Camille while showing larger flats to her and Odile.

Camille and Marc:

Camille and André:

Ultimately at least Camille, Nicolas, André and Pierre are somewhere between generally unhappy and clinically depressed. Odile buys a place from Marc and at the housewarming party Arditi plans to walk out (after closing on a new house?) and André turns on his boss.

When things start to go bad at the party, sea creatures appear over the picture:

Favorite tunes included Marc’s confident women-chasing theme song “J’aime Les Filles” by Jacques Dutronc and Nicolas’s whiny hypochondriac theme song “Je ne suis pas bien portant” by Gaston Ouvrard.

A hit in France, it won seven César awards, though Resnais lost the director award to Luc Besson of all the damn things. Played in Berlin with Jackie Brown and The Big Lebowski.

Nicolas with his estranged wife Jane Birkin:

Marc all alone:

Resnais in the NY Times:

Potter was extremely pessimistic. His are films of a man who has suffered a great deal, who creates characters who are paranoid. The songs are in total contrast with the situations in the film. We tried to have the song always come from inside the head of the character, to reflect the moment.

I didn’t expect this from the most naturalistic of the French new wavers. It’s a period musical adaptation of an epic poem – that part seems up Rohmer’s alley – but he uses spare, symbolic sets (anticipating the digital backdrops of The Lady and the Duke) and has the actors read their character’s dialogue and accompanying narration, speaking along with their actions so as not to break up the verses. The source poem is incomplete, so the story trails off at the end, but not before a momentum-killing passion play with our lead character as Jesus on the cross. It’s quirky and unique, and I liked the story somewhat, but didn’t warm up to the simple lead character or the renaissance music. As far as French movies set in weirdly artificial castles starring Andre Dussolier go, I prefer La Vie est un roman.

Young Andre Dussolier with Perceval:

Perceval (Fabrice Luchini, who’d recently starred in Immoral Tales) takes advice given him VERY seriously, listening first to his mother, then a “worthy man” he meets on his travels. But he is dumb as hell, and sometimes misinterprets the intent of the advice, firstly when he barges into a knight’s tent, steals some food and molests the woman inside. I’m not sure what advice led to that. Later he’s told that it’s better to stay silent than say stupid stuff, so in the enchanted castle of the Fisher King, he doesn’t ask about the miraculous bleeding spear and glowing bowl he sees, and so is cursed for his lack of humility, and spends five years wandering godlessly through the wilderness while his mother dies alone back home. As with many ancient texts, the story takes logical leaps that I don’t follow.

Magic woman with awesome hair who delivers the Fisher King curse:

Perceval Christ:

Elsewhere, Perceval falls for a woman named Blanchefleur (Arielle Dombasle, who made an impression as the goofy wheelchair woman in La Belle Captive), defends her castle and promises to marry her. He gets respect from King Arthur and starts sending his defeated enemies to the King for punishment instead of finishing them off. Then the movie leaves Perceval for a long while, following Arthurian knight Gawain (Dussolier) on a quest to clear his name from some murderous accusation, with a stop on the way to win a jousting contest on behalf of a rich girl. I love that the same choir of musical servants (including Pascale Ogier of Le Pont du Nord, in her first role) appears in every location. I also love the look of the film, and a weird scene involving cartoon geese.

There’s Pascale on the right:

Perceval with Blanchefleur:

Rosenbaum:

a medieval musical that feels a bit like a western … The merit of Rohmer’s realism in Perceval is that it brings something otherwise dead and forgotten to life – not because Rohmer’s imagination is especially rich but because he sees no alternative to his literalism, even if it makes some audiences laugh in disbelief.

All those people smiling on the cover of the DVD tricked us into expecting a romantic comedy, not these wintry intertwined tales of sad, lonely Parisians.

Relationships: Thierry and Charlotte are real-estate agents. Thierry lives with his younger sister Gaelle. Gaelle is dating men from the internet and meets Dan. Dan is breaking up with his girlfriend Nicole. Nicole is looking for a new apartment with the help of Thierry. Dan hangs out a a hotel bar tended by Lionel. And Lionel’s elderly father (offscreen Arthur) is looked after part-time by Charlotte.

Difficulties: Charlotte, very religious, secretly likes to tape herself dancing in naughty lingerie. Thierry sees one of the tapes and becomes attracted to Charlotte. Gaelle catches her brother watching the tape and gets angry. Nicole is frustrated with Thierry and can’t find an apartment. Charlotte and Lionel don’t know what to do with Lionel’s horrible father. Aaaand Gaelle sees Dan talking with Nicole and runs off.

Written by the same playwright who did Smoking/No Smoking, Private Fears etc was the original title and Resnais changed the film’s title to Coeurs. Easy enough to see why. He shoots one careful scene at a time (no cross-cutting), softly falling snow behind every window and over every scene transition, every once in a while a sudden zoom (signifying what?). Soft and incomplete boundaries between people, beginning with a bedroom split in half by a wall (so the two “rooms” share a window), then Lionel’s bar, his father in the other room with the door always open, a curtain of beads, a glass wall between the real-estate agents’ desks. Gaelle’s failure to connect with Dan helps her reconcile with her brother. Charlotte’s aching hidden desire to express herself frustrates Thierry but helps free Lionel. The actors are all super, and their characters are affecting, building up to a snowing-indoors finale.

Music by Mark Snow (X-Files!) and shot by Assayas fave Eric Gautier, who also did Gabrielle and Into the Wild.

Nicole – Laura Morante of The Son’s Room
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Dan (left) – Lambert Wilson, the english guy from Not On The Lips
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Charlotte – Sabine Azéma, star of Melo, Not On The Lips, Same Old Song and Smoking
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Gaëlle – Isabelle Carré of various films I’ve never heard of
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Lionel – Pierre Arditi of Melo, Smoking, Same Old Song
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Thierry – André Dussollier, Audrey’s lawyer? uncle? in A Very Long Engagement and in Same Old Song, Melo and Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois
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Arthur (offscreen) – Claude Rich of Stavisky

Dave Kehr:
“At first, Resnais’s mise-en-scene seems stiff and broadly theatrical, emphasizing the divisions within the decor and between the characters; then, the camera becomes more mobile, rising above walls and partitions, as the characters seem to break out of their established orbits and begin colliding with each other. The playing becomes more naturalistic, the lighting more gentle, and the geometry of the compositions less harsh as seemingly appropriate couples begin to form.” … “At 84, the eternally elegant, emotionally reserved Resnais seems to be allowing the mask to slip a bit: this is the quietly devastating testament of a deeply lonely man.”

Keith Ulrich in Slant:
“There’s more than a whiff of contempt in the way Ayckbourn conceives his seven upper-class characters, all of whom circle in and out of each others’ lives with contrived dramaturgical abandon, but Resnais’s inquiry into their tragicomic malaise is genuine, at best enraptured.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum:
“It’s an archetypal and at points almost insufferably clever piece of boulevard theater — the sort of thing Resnais has been producing periodically ever since he adapted the French play Melo in 1986 and began mining his childhood playgoing experiences. At the same time, it’s a lyrical lament that doubles as a comprehensive retrospective of his career. The characters, invested with an almost tragic tenderness, are by and large played by actors Resnais has been using for two decades. When Dan and Gaëlle trade confidences in the hotel bar, we could almost be back in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), just as a camera movement exploring part of a flat summons up Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and a montage of domestic objects returns us to Muriel (1963). All three of these films, to some degree, are about private fears in public places, a theme that’s come up again and again in his work.”

and
“The film’s constant snowfall, not at all indicative of typical Paris weather, is a personal invention with no counterpart in the play. (Another is the 19th-century portraits and landscape paintings, by Turner and others, that crop up in some of the flats, pointing toward the characters’ unacknowledged Victorianism.) This magical heavy snow, viewed through windows and used in transitions bridging the film’s 54 short scenes, is as laden with metaphorical nuance as the snow in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. It’s so central to the overall mood and visual texture that when we suddenly see it falling inside a kitchen during a climactic scene, shortly before the camera starts to encircle two characters, the moment’s emotional logic is perfectly pitched. Fundamentally, Resnais has always been an expressionist, using his settings and compositions to evoke the inner states of his characters. Here, tying expressionism to social critique, he becomes an improbable but unmistakable blood brother of Carl Dreyer, turning material written by others into a highly personal testament that burns its way into our souls.”