Not On The Lips (2003, Alain Resnais)

Resnais films a 1925 libretto by Andr̩ Barde (which was also filmed in 1931, but nobody seems to know much about that version) with much of the same crew and cast as his 1997 Same Old Song. Movie is shot like a straight period piece in hazy color (or was it my DVD which was hazy?), almost like a play, with longish wide shots and not many close-ups. Comedy/musical style, characters look into camera and talk to the audience. Songs are decent, nothing memorable or amazing, with subtitles annoyingly translated to rhyme in English. No big setpiece numbers, in fact it abruptly changes scenes just as one was about to begin. A few interesting cinematic bits Рwhen characters leave the room they are seen fading away accompanied by a sound of fluttering birds.

I like the movie a lot, enough to see it a second time and show it off to Katy (assuming correctly that she’d like it a bit more than Private Fears). But is it simply a cute, charming light-hearted musical? Is Resnais Trying To Say Something Here? Does this fit in with the grand cinematic master’s important themes of life & death, memory & time, his intricate puzzle-box editing schemes? Of course, I’ve watched the 50’s and 60’s movies and then jumped 35 years through time to watch Not On The Lips, so I’m missing a significant amount of development. Before jumping all over the internet for theories on what’s going on with this film, the only clues I have are the fading-out/fluttering-birds bits. The story is set around the time Resnais was born, and all these characters would be long dead… ghosts still inhabiting their stage-play world performing to a nonexistent audience? Is that stretching it? Anyway, most of the other author of online reviews are suffering from the same lapse as I am, comparing this one to Hiroshima and Marienbad instead of, say, Smoking or Stavisky. I’ll get to ’em all soon though. For a start I’m picking up that most of his works since 1980 have been about artifice and theatricality rather than time and memory.

What am I missing? “Alex” says “Resnais has often made extensive play between beautiful surface spectacle and underlying reality a central feature of his work.” He points out that rich steelmen Eric and George both have weird sexual hang-ups, and says that George is seen reading a far-right-wing newspaper and sings a racist song (must not have been translated that way on our DVD). Then Alex tries to make a point about how the less-rich Charley and Faradel are more thoughtful but less successful with women, but he’s lost me there.

Alex: “Both Valandray and Thompson are portrayed as quite unattractive figures. Many critics have painted Thompson’s portrayal as anti-American, but Resnais’ Georges Valandray is, if anything, much more darkly presented. Georges sings a strange song (“I was pushed aside”) that is openly racist and anti-immigrant (cutting heavily against the thesis that the movie is purely light-hearted). Georges is specifically shown reading the far-right-wing newspaper of the 1920s and 1930s, Action Francaise. In addition, Georges’ eros is shown up as highly flawed – he gives several bizarre speeches comparing love-making to steel-making, speeches which attempt to explain why he values virginity so highly, yet the speeches come off perverse and even disturbing, while the all of Georges’ other speeches are very elegant and pleasing.”

Michael Sicinski on the late films:
“Instead of using complex editing schemes to delve into Proustian time, late Resnais uses distancing techniques to explore both artifice and the false temporality of cinema. Like a more populist Manoel de Oliveira, Resnais has concerned himself with the relationship between theatre and cinema, particularly the theatre’s immediacy and the way his stagy films embalm this immediacy into irrevocable distance. Some, like Smoking / No Smoking, highlight this with theatrical gimmicks (multiple characters played by only two actors) whose awkward transition into cinema turns a light middlebrow entertainment into something eerily impenetrable. Others such as Mélo and Same Old Song, use artifacts from the past to undercut the cinematic present with the past’s obdurate alterity. Not on the Lips is another experiment in this vein, and my befuddled reaction to it has to do with my inability to access it on any level other than the intellectual.”

Greg Muskewitz:
“The operetta is a genuine reflection on the deceptiveness — albeit playful deceptiveness — of the human condition that Resnais has so creatively carved out in his long-spanning oeuvre.”

Rosenbaum:
“The characters’ exits are marked by lap dissolves that make the actors appear to evaporate, accompanied by the sound of fluttering wings — something Resnais says he did for musical and rhythmic reasons.”

“Like Melo, which adapted a serious boulevard play of 1929, Not on the Lips offers a profound history lesson — one that becomes tricky once one realizes that despite the close attention to 1925 details, it has no visible relation to any French film made during that period. It’s like an artifact from a parallel universe where film history took a different turn. In this respect, it’s unlike Resnais’ previous flirtations with musicals: Stavisky (1974), with its lovely Stephen Sondheim score; Life Is a Bed of Roses (1983), with its operatic segments; and Same Old Song (1997), which appropriates Dennis Potter’s use of lip-synched pop songs. Despite its playful allusions to theater — shadow-play silhouettes to introduce actors, an unrealistic lighting change in the midst of a monologue, a finale that musically thanks the audience for not leaving early — Not on the Lips is closer to a dream than a pastiche, a fantasy grounded in memory and imagination.”

Story via IMDB:
“Gilberte, in middle-age, flirts with men but loves her husband Georges, wishing he were more demonstrative. He’s negotiating a deal with an American, Eric Thomson, who turns out to be Gilberte’s first husband from an annulled and secret stateside marriage. Along with her sister Arlette, Gilberte begs Eric not to tell Georges about the marriage. Meanwhile, a young artist, Charly, pursues Gilberte while Arlette tries to match him with the young Huguette, who loves him.”

The Eric Thomson sham is carried off, and when their hand is forced, the sisters claim that Arlette is the ex/wife… she kisses Eric, sparks fly. Charly goes to hanger-on Faradel’s bachelor pad to meet Gilberte but finds himself happily with Huguette. Gilberte makes up with husband Georges. Faradel doesn’t necessarily end up with meddling landlady Madame Foin, but wouldn’t that make for a quadruply happy romantic ending?

Two sisters: Isabelle Nanty is the girl who gets set up with Dominique Pinon in Amelie… Sabine Azéma is the pious/sexy caretaker in Private Fears and has been in everything else since the early 80’s:
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Jalil Lespert, of Le Petit lieutenant, whom Katy says looks like Crispin Glover:
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Lambert Wilson: dan the barfly in Private Fears, also in The Belly of an Architect, plays evil frenchman parts in recent hollywood movies:
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A hopping party:
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Love behind the hedges – there’s Audrey Tautou at lower-right. Georges, on the left, played Lionel in Private Fears and like Sabine Azema he has been in all of Resnais’ movies since ’80 except for I Want To Go Home.
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L: best supporting actor winner Darry Cowl, R: Daniel Prévost from The Dinner Game
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A happy ending:
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I liked this little trick where Georges and Gilberte are talking in the hall, then they get edited into the kitchen mid-conversation:

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