Judge Joe Armenio would like to give his review in song. Cover your ears.
"These French women, they're even more of a handful than their American counterparts."—Eric
French director Alain Resnais (born 1922) remains best known for his documentary on the Holocaust, Night and Fog, and his first two fiction films, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). These films were highly intellectual, highly stylized, and at times stiflingly somber meditations on the nature of reality, memory, and human connection; when released, they worked for American audiences as convenient symbols for the ambition (and for some, the pretentiousness) of European cinema at a time of great creativity and experimentation. Over the last forty years, Resnais has continued to make films, but his moment in the international spotlight has passed, leaving us with a body of work that has yet to be assessed by American audiences (and most critics). With his most recent film, Not On The Lips (Pas Sur La Bouche), an adaptation of a 1925 operetta by Andre Barde and Maurice Yvain, Resnais revels in the theatricality and artificiality of the period piece, producing a light variation on some of the themes that have occupied him for his entire career.
Facts of the Case
The plot is standard drawing-room farce material: Georges (Pierre Arditi) is a businessman married to Gilberte (Sabine Azema), a flirt who enjoys collecting admirers such as the bohemian artist Charly (Jalil Lespert), who is also being pursued by Huguette (Audrey Tautou, Amelie). Gilberte's secret, known only to her sister Arlette (Isabelle Nanty), is that she was once married to an American named Eric Thomson (Lambert Wilson, The Matrix Reloaded), who turns out to be her current husband's business partner. Georges would not be pleased to know that Gilberte was previously married, since he's a rigid sort who enjoys expounding on his theory that a woman "belongs" to the man she is with first. Gilberte attempts to keep her secret, Huguette pursues Charly, Charly pursues Gilberte, and the action is frequently pushed along through witty, bantering musical numbers.
Resnais revels in and accentuates the formalism and theatricality of the piece, from the spoken opening credits to the final musical number, in which the characters peek through a curtain and sing about how their show has finished. At one point a character even sings "the end" when she's done with her song. Each character has a turn interrupting the dialogue and speaking conspiratorially to the camera, giving the audience some crucial bit of exposition or muttering a sarcastic aside. Resnais has always been interested in the stylized glamour of high society: Think of the strange, mannequin-like poses of the elegant characters in Last Year at Marienbad, which were designed to unsettle, to disturb.
If that film was a brooding, minor-keyed treatment of its theme, Not On The Lips is a sprightly, comedic, major-keyed version. Occasionally the formal tricks take on a somewhat disturbing tone, as when the characters simply vanish from a scene rather than exiting, or the bravura finish to the second act, in which six characters sing at once, their images multiplying in mirrors and their bantering lines overlapping. But Resnais is content to make strangeness and disorientation undertones to a film which always retains its sprightly feel.
Resnais has worked with 1920s pop culture before, in his 1986 film Melo (unseen by me), which was adapted from a popular 1929 play. Judging from Not On The Lips, it seems that the material interests him partly because of the distancing effect of period forms. There's also something interesting about the relationship between pop culture and the avant-garde in the 1920s that makes it an especially fruitful arena for the exploration of Resnais' preoccupations. The Surrealists, Dadaists, and other anti-realist artists of the time were interested in "lowbrow" styles because of their exuberance, vitality, and artificiality, and in turn they became subjects of popular interest; in Not On The Lips the character of Charly is gently parodied as a member of the "Cubisto-Cuneiform" or "Coocoo" school. Charly, who produces a play called "Primitive Souls," can be seen as a sort of alter ego for the director, an artist interested in mixing the highbrow and lowbrow until neither could be said to exist on its own anymore.
Each of the film's three acts takes place on a different interior set, all of which are fascinating to look at; the first, Georges and Gilberte's house, is the quietest and most elegant, decorated in the dark reds and browns that dominate the color scheme throughout. Most of the second act takes place in the empty theater space in which Charly's place will be performed (again, the emphasis is on the theatrical, with the emptiness giving the whole thing a subtly creepy tone). The third set is the most exuberant, an apartment laid out in elaborately patterned art deco style.
Resnais decided to cast non-professional singers in the film, which adds to its charm. Adema and Nanty aren't very technically sound, but the fragility of their singing, and the effort by which they get their songs across, is moving (Tautou, on the other hand, has a nice voice). The songs themselves are tuneful and filled with jokes and games; I don't speak French, but I have to imagine that a lot of wordplay is lost in translation, although the rhymes and puns in the English subtitles never seem forced.
When I first read the film's plot I was worried that Lambert Wilson's American was going to be the sort of boorish stereotype that is starting to become a tiresome standby in European film. With his stiff bearing and blunt American accent, he is a brusque and prudish figure (the title song is about his aversion to kissing, which he sees as unhygienic), but he turns out to be no more or less a figure of fun than any of the other characters, all of whom have their foibles. Gilberte, for example, is seen as frivolous, Charly as pretentious, Georges as a crackpot conservative. The cast and Resnais do an excellent job of taking this cast of stock characters and turning them into genuinely lovable figures; the uplift at the end, when the characters are matched in accordance with comic tradition, feels earned and satisfying.
Wellspring's DVD contains no extras of note. There are filmographies for the director and all eight major actors, and weblinks for use by viewers with DVD-ROM capabilities. Trailers for Not On The Lips and five other Wellspring films are also included (Tarnation, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Seducing Dr. Lewis, Strayed, and Anything But Love, for anyone who keeps track of such things). The transfer retains the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and does an excellent job in preserving the film's rich colors. The viewer is given the option of Dolby 2.0 Stereo or 5.1 Surround Sound, both of which are fine, although on my copy there were two moments near the end of the film when the sound cut out entirely for about a second.
Not On The Lips did not get a theatrical release in the U.S.; perhaps distributors were concerned that the film was "too French," inaccessible to American audiences. That's a shame, because Not On The Lips is a very entertaining and very cinematic film from a director whose interesting work is unjustly assumed to be only in the past.
"Not guilty," sang the critic.
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Studio: Wellspring Media
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