Smoking/No Smoking (1993, Alain Resnais)

Watched for Resnais’s 90th birthday. One of the most excellent, entertaining and moving Resnais films I’ve seen. Too bad it’s five hours long so I won’t be able to show it to anyone else. Just two actors (Sabine Azema, recently great in Wild Grass, and Pierre Arditi, her resurrected fiancee in Love Unto Death) play about four characters each. Each movie begins with Sabine thinking about grabbing a cigarette – in one she does, in the other she doesn’t – and builds from there, branching into multiple stories based on different decisions made by the characters, all of them more meaningful and consequential than the cigarette, rewinding to show the opposite decisions and their outcomes, building a structured mega-narrative, showing how the same characters deal with different circumstances.


Cartoon character intros. School principal’s wife Celia Teasdale grabs a cigarette, and school caretaker Lionel Hepplewick shows up to look at her garden. Lionel flirts with Sylvie, the Teasdales’ maid.

Five Days Later: the Teasdales admit their marriage is over. Red-cheeked principal Toby decides to leave for a while.

Five Weeks Later: Celia has started over as a caterer, is working her first event with Lionel, who proves a poor business partner. She loses her damn mind, very amusingly, and Toby feels awful and returns to her.

Five Years Later: funeral of local poet Joe Hepplewick, Lionel’s father. Toby has quit drinking, and Celia is still troubled after her catering breakdown. Lionel succeeded in the food industry, married a businesswoman and runs a thriving cafeteria, while Celia, whose idea it was, is a shell of her former energetic self, cared for by her sad husband.


Back at the catering job at the tail end of the breakdown, Lionel comes running up and assures Celia that she can count on him.

Five Years Later: Poet Joe’s funeral, Toby and Celia barely recognize each other. She’s still partnered with Lionel running their successful business, and Toby is a drunken mess. “At each funeral I feel like I’m being buried myself.”


Back in their garden, Toby Teasdale doesn’t leave his wife but proposes a vacation. Lionel is crushed that Celia’s leaving, and tells him the catering thing was just a pipe dream.

Five Weeks Later: comic scene at a hotel terrace. Lionel has followed them, got a job as a waiter, and keeps trying to secretly speak with Celia, bringing her desserts as a pretense. Toby finds out and has him fired.

Five Years Later: funeral for Toby. Celia is accompanied by Toby’s friend Miles, and obsessed Lionel is there working as a gravedigger, still following Celia.


Back at the hotel, Toby restrains himself after learning that Lionel has followed them. Celia admits she encouraged him and Lionel agrees to leave her alone.

Five Years Later: commemorative service to celebrate the school’s anniversary. Celia is still with Toby and they’re unhappy again/still. Lionel pops by, married and successful with a taxi business.


Back at the Teasdales’ garden when Lionel was flirting with the maid Sylvie on the first day of the fateful cigarette, he agrees to go out with her if she’ll stop dating other guys – so he never ends up involved with Celia at all.

Five Days Later: After their date, Lionel starts working on Sylvie, telling herself she needs to improve herself if they’re ever going to make something of themselves. She gets principal Toby to agree to help her learn about literature. Toby’s wife Celia comes home, complains at Toby to stop drinking, saying Miles saved his ass from getting fired. Lionel is pleased that Sylvie is taking her self-improvement seriously.

Five Weeks Later: town festivities and a rare sighting of poet Joe Hepplewick in a wheelchair, talking with Celia, then with Sylvie about her future with his son Lionel. She’s testy when talking with now-unemployed Lionel. Toby is looking better, inspired by his new role as Sylvie’s mentor, but she tells him she’s stopping the lessons because there’s no point. Sylvie gets stuck in the stockade, where she’s to be pelted with sponges later during the festival, and Lionel hits her with one instead of freeing her.

Five Years Later: Lionel and Sylvie have two boys, are christening their young daughter. Lionel is still kind of a fuckup, and he tells Celia that Sylvie is boss in their household. Toby is feeling better since quitting his principal job, acting as godfather to the baby girl. “I’ll personally keep an eye on her education.” “I thought you were fed up with education.” “This is a special case.”


Back at the festival, Lionel frees her after all, and Sylvie says she won’t marry him, then tricks him into the stockade.

Five Years Later: Principal Toby is sick-drunk at the school’s anniversary celebration. Sylvie is a reporter now, arrives to interview the principal, says Lionel married someone else. “She wasn’t as lucky as you were.” Sylvie thanks Toby for his lessons years earlier. “You showed me the way so I could escape,” and makes the principal feel happy again.

No Smoking

Celia decides against that cigarette, and misses Lionel’s visit, is visited by Toby’s friend Miles instead, who tells her that the school board is about to fire her husband for being drunk and erratic, that Miles is trying to save him. Celia says don’t bother, tells Miles that she’s leaving Toby anyway for being a shitty husband. But when she goes back in the house, Miles tells maid Sylvie to deliver the message that he’s going to try anyway, and that the four of them (he has a rocky marriage to serial cheater Rowena) should have dinner this weekend.

Five Days Later: in the garden, the only two who show for dinner are Celia and Miles – who recently saved Toby’s job at the school. Turns out Toby stayed away on purpose, wanted Miles to talk to Celia, deliver the message that Toby still wants to stay with her. But Miles is in love with Celia. Awkward dinner becomes stranger when Celia’s mom Josephine shows up, asks Miles a lot of questions (but she is very discreet). He is fed up, goes and hides in the shed, as Toby stumbles home and eats with Celia.

Five Weeks Later: confessions on the golf course. “It’s only gotten worse since he stopped drinking.” Red-haired Rowea taunts husband Miles, then gets him to read her a poem.

Five Years Later: Easter, and Miles sees Celia in the churchyard. Toby died years earlier and Miles and Rowena moved away. Back visiting now, but nobody seems especially happy.


Back at the golf course, Rowena tells Miles it’s not going to work out.

Five Years Later: School’s 50th, both couples are broken up, Miles and Toby have moved away and live together, with difficulty, and Celia has scored a job at the school.


Back at the beginning, Miles says he’ll defend Toby to the school board and doesn’t propose any dinner with Celia. Later, arguing with his wife on a walk through the Teasdales’ garden, Rowena locks him in the shed. Sylvie the maid lets him out, and he spontaneously invites her on a walk around the British coast, which he’d always wanted to do with his wife but never got the chance. Celia comes out to talk, says Sylvie left a message that she doesn’t like long walks, and that Rowena is out with another guy. Miles decides to go back into the shed.

Five Weeks Later: Miles is still in the shed, much to Toby’s annoyance. Rowena messes with Lionel, throws his pants in the fire when he removes them to show off, then talks her husband out of the shed, but he says he’s leaving to start over somewhere new.

Five Years Later: midnight mass. Sylvie, now married to Lionel, sees Miles in the churchyard. He’s waiting for Rowena. “You were right. You can’t start over again.”


Back at the shed, Rowena is nicer to Miles and gets him to come home.

Five Years Later: party at the school, Rowena scares off Lionel, is completely nasty to her husband.


Back at the shed, Celia delivers the message that Sylvie loves long walks.

Five Weeks Later: Sylvie lied, is complaining about her shoes and the cold and leg cramps on the first day of her hiking trip with Miles. They are infatuated though, and share a kiss, rare in this movie, but they’re also getting on each other’s nerves. They talk it out in a travelers’ cabin. “I always have my worst moments in sheds.” Sylvie wanders off, and Rowena arrives to collect her husband.

Five Years Later: Sylvie is just marrying Lionel, and Miles is walking her down the aisle. Rowena comes by in a red Devo hat and is pretty nice to her husband for once.


Back on the hiking path, Miles refuses to follow Rowena and falls to his death in the fog.

Five Years Later: a memorial ceremony for Miles led by Toby. “His widow told us he has a preference for sheds,” so they dedicated a shed in the churchyard in his memory. Sylvie and Rowena separately tell Toby that they’ll come at times, sit in the shed and think of Miles. “Incredible, what a story. Hard to understand.”

Nice movie, with good music and a surprisingly strong endings to each title. Not shown above: Irene Pridworthy, school vice principal. Based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn (Coeurs) in which a different series of variations is performed every night, so it takes sixteen performances to catch them all. Resnais and his writers cut it down to twelve for the film. Won an award in Berlin, and best picture at the Cesars, also best director, screenplay, production design and actor, but actress went to Binoche for Blue.

Ayckbourn in 2007:

They all finish with a certain dying fall, except for a couple that go up in mood. In general, the point is that we do have free will and we can choose, but we can’t change unless we make a huge effort. Only Sylvie makes a big change; she’s the one who changes the most. If you don’t change, you just end up in the same place. How many men do we know who end up marrying the same woman again and again! At the end of their lives, people who have unsuccessful relationships will say weren’t they unlucky in love but maybe they were impossible to live with. Anyone who would marry Lionel Hepplewick in Intimate Exchanges must be mad!

I looked up five reviews, and each said the movie grew tiresome and wasn’t inventive enough with its premise – except for J. Rosenbaum, of course.

Resnais’ fascination with a highly theatrical cinema, first broached in Mélo, gets freakishly extended here, with two of the same actors running brittle, virtuosic relays between multiple roles. On the stage, Aykbourn’s plays were meant to be performed over eight consecutive evenings; eliminating the two most “English” scenes — a medieval pageant and a cricket game — Resnais commissioned Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui, his subsequent writers on Same Old Song, to squeeze this into two two-hour features, to be seen interactively in whatever order the audience prefers. In practice, Resnais reported that most French viewers hedonistically opted for Smoking first. And it appears that what they found more palatable than their Anglo-American counterparts is a principal identified by critic François Thomas as pivotal to Resnais’ later films — an alternation between affection and recoil, identification and distance, sweetness and bitterness reflecting the influence of Follies and other musicals by Stephen Sondheim.