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 should bloody damn and bloody blast and bugger and bloody flaming bloody well think so!”

Terrific and strange, the kind of thing nobody has done before or since (correction: Potter did it years earlier with his Stand Up Nigel Barton). Grown adults portray a bunch of kids playing in the woods on a particularly traumatic day. Director Brian Gibson would go on to direct Poltergeist II, but writer Dennis Potter (the year after Pennies From Heaven) is what brought me here.

The kids play war games and house, while their parents are off at real wars and houses. They hear alarms from the nearby prison and hide. They misuse pronouns. The boys kill a squirrel then get upset about it. Later, they help to kill another boy, pyro Donald who sets the barn alight then gets trapped inside it.

foreground: Colin Welland, 45, of Kes, also writer of Chariots of Fire. with Michael Elphick, 33, of Withnail & I, star of a long-running series called Boon.

Helen Mirren, 34, between Caligula and The Long Good Friday

Janine Duvitski, 27, appeared in the Frank Langella Dracula and The New World

Colin Jeavons, 50, of a bunch of early 1960’s Dickens miniseries, later Blackeyes and Secret Friends

John Bird, 43, was playing Horace Greeley on a series last year

Not pictured: Robin Ellis, 37, known for a Revolutionary War-era series called Poldark.

An entry for…

Initiated by Shadowplay

A true “late film,” Cold Lazarus was the final script completed by Dennis Potter just weeks before his (and his wife’s!) death from cancer. He wrote it after his diagnosis as a companion piece to Karaoke, which he didn’t feel should stand alone as his final work. I watched Karaoke a year before starting this memory-enhancing blog, and so don’t remember it perfectly, but enough to get the connections between the two stories.

C. Chapman on the general idea:
“A dying writer, haunted by his past creations and aware of how his legacy will be picked over by the media barons he so hates, writes about a dying writer, haunted by his past creations, and then how his legacy is picked over by the media barons.”

Potter on Potter:
“You don’t mind the frozen head in itself so much as you care about the stories it’s telling.”

Authority figures wear silly helmets in The Future:

Set in the year 2300, a lab run by Prof. Emma Polack (Frances de la Tour of Rising Damp, suddenly in a bunch of mega-budget Hollywood movies) has got the frozen head of Albert Finney’s character from Karaoke hooked up to machines and chemicals, with which the lab rats can visualize his memories. Unfortunately for them, Finney was a creative type whose thoughts don’t always reflect events as they actually occurred – a fun premise which I wish had been given more time. Had Potter lived long enough to workshop the script with actors/readers, assuming he ever did that sort of thing, he may have realized how much time was spent instead on typically tedious sci-fi blather, characters rattling off endless serial numbers (because in The Future, numbers replace names for everything) and silly futuristic words (the scientists didn’t go to college, but “cyber-college”). He also may have noticed how clueless these supposedly brilliant scientists seem when they ponder aloud the nature of subjective memory. I don’t mean to be hard on the guy, though – it’s an interesting story, and he was under the strictest writing deadline: to finish the story before his imminent death.

I’ll bet Finney’s frozen head would fetch good money on Ebay:

Frances de la Tour and Ganiat Kasumu, whose hilarious hairstyle you can’t make out properly from this screenshot:

So, Emma runs the lab along with shady Fyodor (Ciaran Hinds, a henchman in The Cook, The Thief, etc, and FBI in Miami Vice), straight-laced Tony (Grant Masters, whose previous claim to fame had been “man in laundry room” in a Mr. Bean episode), Luanda (Ganiat Kasumu of Nigeria), Kaya (Claudia “no relation” Malkovich) and Blinda (Carmen Ejogo, Maya Rudolph’s sister in Away We Go). They’re all under severe budget restrictions from artifically-young Cruella DeVillianous lab owner Martina (Diane Ladd: Laura Dern’s lipstick-smeared obsessive mother in Wild at Heart). But Martina’s buddy/rival Dave (Henry Goodman of Taking Woodstock), a benevolent television mogul, finds out about the lab’s research with the aid of Martina’s VR helmet (remember VR?) and his own network of robotic-bird spies, and secretly offers to buy them out, offering them an unlimited budget in exchange for the rights to broadcast Finney’s memories.

Evil Diane Ladd consorts with evil Henry Goodman:

Intrigue: Fyodor is secretly an agent of the underground RON (“Reality or Nothing”) organization, and when Kaya exhibits enough human compassion that he thinks she might be turned to their cause, he introduces her to a RON-affiliated coworker, to disastrous results. Blinda is found to be a spy for the owner, so Fyodor takes her out in the movie’s most Army of Shadows-worthy scene. And new boss Dave’s supposed benevolence turns quite unsurprisingly evil. The movie’s most interesting unanswered question is what will happen when Finney’s conscience is broadcast into every home. Dave is counting on an unprecedented ratings bonanza, people passively consuming a man’s psyche as entertainment, but Fyodor hopes that glimpses into a less-authoritarian past will make people realize their own lack of freedom and rise up, inspired by the RON slogan. Potter preferred not to allow us an answer, as Fyodor shoots first Dave then the head (which somehow provokes a lab-consuming, Fyodor-vaporizing explosion).

Ciaran Hinds, about to shoot either Goodman or Finney:

Of course since it’s Potter, there’s also rape and depression, torture and nihilism, and Finney sings Pennies From Heaven (probably a scene from Karaoke). Funny how his “memories” are edited rather to the rhythm of a 1990’s British TV miniseries, heh. The perverted sex-scientist whom Dave places on the team in the second half and Martina’s series of scantily-clad poolboys were a fun touch.

In the doc Dennis Potter: A Life in Television, someone says at least Potter was never boring – which is true of this. It’s not his very best writing (I’d even prefer the hardly-ever-discussed Lipstick On Your Collar) but it’s never boring. It’s a classy production too, with CGI effects that seem very good for mid-90’s television. The John Williamsy music is a bit loud, and the actors are more than a bit loud, everyone seeming drunkenly overenthusiastic.

Finney appears full-grown in his own childhood memories, an approach used before by Potter in Blue Remembered Hills:

Director Renny Rye (who also made Karaoke, Midnight Movie, Lipstick On Your Collar) was hand-picked by Potter for having no personality. Rye:

One of the reasons about Dennis wanting me to do it, was that he had this anxiety about directors wanting to impose their own stamp to such a degree that the writer’s original voice is masked or overcoloured. That distancing is one of the things he was dramatising. … Dennis loved the conceit of this group of scientists exploiting a writer’s brain after his death. ‘That’s what you’re going to be doing in a year’s time,’ he said: ‘exploiting my work.’

I don’t especially want to talk about Secret Friends. On one hand, it was interesting to compare to Potter’s book Ticket To Ride, which I just read, and the flashbacks and ambiguous dream sequences a la Alain Resnais’s Providence should be worth discussing, but on the other hand I’ve overdosed on Potter’s poisonous misanthropy and just want to move past this one for now.

Our hero on the train, looking like he is wearing a wig and false eyebrows:

Alan Bates (Losey’s The Go-Between) is our guy, scheming against his wife Helen (Gina Bellman, title character in Blackeyes, later starred in the show Coupling) who doesn’t actually seem so bad. Riding the train to attempt to sell his obsessively detailed paintings of wildflowers, he has an identity crisis. Plenty of weirdness follows involving hotel prostitutes, affairs with neighbors, our contemptible protagonist’s painful upbringing, confused passers-by, and stuff that is happening which is not happening… which does not seem to be happening at all. Potter directed his own adaptation of his own novel.

Helen, spooked:

Strangers on a train:

I’ve always wondered about this one. In my mind it represented all the non-musical Potter plays, the other half of his career, and so I had to coax myself into finally watching it for fear it’d damage my image of the great man. Liked it for sure, but don’t think I would’ve been hooked if this was the first one of his plays/adaptations I’d seen. Well-written, subversive, but dark as all hell… I am surprised this guy was allowed to work in television.

Over two decades before The Blair Witch Project:

Michael Kitchen (Out of Africa, recurring role in recent James Bond flicks) is Martin, an evil young man who bumps into strangers on the street and tries to convince them that they know each other. Denholm Elliott (A Room with a View, Bad Timing, best known as a good guy in the Indiana Jones movies) almost falls for it then ditches him, but Martin stole Elliott’s wallet, takes it home and easily talks his way into the house with the wife Patricia Lawrence (in Potter’s Son of Man a few years earlier). Martin sees that their daughter Pattie is lying brain-damaged at home and fakes that he was an ex of hers who was turned down for marriage, offers to help care for her, acts ever so polite. Elliott is suspicious but doesn’t move fast enough, and Martin integrates himself. The wife might be gullible, but she’s also so weary from taking care of Pattie constantly and jumps at the chance to leave her in compassionate hands for a few hours each day. One night when Martin is about to rape Pattie for at least the second time, she wakes up screaming, aware of herself at last, and Martin flees, immediately starts looking for a new family.

Move mouse over image to see Michael Kitchen get over-excited:

Barry Davis (who also directed Potter’s Schmoedipus the same year) keeps things lively on a miniscule budget. The not-at-all-naturalistic lighting effects (see first screenshot) are especially nice. From the initial street scene on, it stays remarkably intense, bizarre and horrifying. Martin has supernatural powers and hairy demon feet. He talks politics with the family, encourages their own worst impulses. Potter writes: “Deport them, that’s what I say. England for the English” into the mouth of the devil. Then of course there’s the home invasion aspect, the rape of a mentally damaged girl and the miracle ending. This was banned for eleven years (“brilliantly written and made, but nauseating”) – that’s why IMDB lists it as a 1987 release. The theatrical remake starring Sting was actually the first version released in the UK.

Denholm Elliott:

My favorite line… having some brandy – “There’s fluoride in the water, so are you able to drink it neat, dear?”

“I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life. Every scene was cheap and vulgar. They didn’t realize that the ‘30s were a very innocent age, and that it should have been set in the eighties — it was just froth; it makes you cry it’s so distasteful.” – Fred Astaire


“Pennies begins with Martin in a state of despair that only intensifies as the movie progresses. Martin achieves his dream of opening a record store only to watch it die an unmourned death. Peters becomes pregnant, gets an abortion, and sinks into prostitution at the behest of Christopher Walken’s tap-dancing pimp. And while there is no sweeter phrase in the English language than ‘Christopher Walken’s tap-dancing pimp,’ I actually prefer Verner Bagneris’ otherworldly solo to the title song to Walken’s rightfully revered strip-tease tap-dance to ‘Let’s Misbehave.’ ” – Nathan Rabin at The AV Club

Emotionally, hits higher highs than the miniseries version, but not as low lows. Bob Hoskins was definitely a better, slimier and more depraved Arthur, but Steve Martin is fine. More importantly, the sets, design, musical numbers and camera work are all glowing and gorgeous in this version. The story is depressing enough without stretching it over four hours… some character dev gets lost, but the essence is all still here. Ross (or DP Gordon Willis, of the “Godfather” series and all the good Woody Allen films) lets the scenes play out in front of the camera without excessive cutting, proving that everyone in the cast was equal to their dancing challenges.

Martin’s wife stalking him through the bedroom holding scissors while singing “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” is truly awesome, but as Nathan Rabin says, it’s the title song that kills me. Incredible movie, I loved it. Katy walked out.

Bernadette Peters as the corrupted schoolteacher turned prostitute

Jessica Harper as Arthur’s repressed and frightened wife

“Christopher Walken’s tap-dancing pimp”

The cops close in, fantasy version

The cops close in, actual version