Judge Ben Saylor has a not-so-private fear of public restrooms, but doesn't think that warrants an entire movie.
For six strangers in search of love, the City of Lights can be a very lonely place.
Don't judge Public Fears in Private Places by the bubbly DVD cover and incorrectly assume that this film is a French Love Actually. In fact, while the film is often humorous, the moments of levity, by and large, offer only a small respite from the loneliness and longing all six characters in this film feel. Legendary French New Wave filmmaker Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad), at the age of 85 has made a film that, while not necessarily in the exalted place of his best works, is still a very good film.
Facts of the Case
The lives of six Parisians intertwine during a wintry time in the city. Thierry (André Dussollier), a realtor, pines for his co-worker, Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), a devout Christian with a secret kinky side. Charlotte also moonlights as a caregiver for the irascible father of Lionel (Pierre Arditi), a bartender at a bright, swanky hotel bar. Lionel's best customer is Dan (Lambert Wilson, The Matrix Reloaded), who has recently been kicked out of the army for unspecified reasons. He retreats into alcohol, much to the frustration of his fiancée, Nicole (Laura Morante), who is looking for a bigger flat for them to share; Thierry is the couple's realtor. Thierry lives with his sister, Gaelle (Isabelle Carré), who spends her nights searching for love through ill-fated blind dates. Over the course of the story, these characters will connect, or fail to do so.
Private Fears in Public Places had the potential to fall flat on its face. But in the hands of old pro Resnais, screenwriter Jean-Michel Ribes (adapting Alan Ayckbourn's play) and the small but talented cast, this film is a low-key triumph.
Any film adapted from a play runs the risk of not surviving the transition to the screen. Not so here. The script keeps this two-hour film moving, sometimes staying in one location with the character(s) for less than a minute before moving on to another. Nearly every line of dialogue in the film is spoken by just six actors, but you wouldn't know it the way Resnais, Ribes and editor Hervé de Luze keep things moving. And despite the sometimes-quick transitions, the story is never hard to follow, and doesn't feel rushed.
Credit for freeing Private Fears in Public Places from the confines of the stage can also be attributed to the stellar sets in this film. The environments these characters interact in are distinct and visually interesting. My personal favorite is the space age hotel bar Dan frequents. Thierry and Charlotte's office is another great set, with a translucent partition adding physical separation to the gap between the two co-workers. Resnais utilizes partitions a great deal in this film, always to good effect.
The actors all give strong performances, although Morante and Carré's roles seem to be somewhat smaller than those of the remaining cast members. To me, the standouts were Wilson, Azéma and Arditi. Wilson, who I had only previously seen in poor Hollywood fare such as Timeline and Sahara, is very good at mixing comedy and seriousness as the deeply troubled Dan. Abruptly cast out of his military career, Dan is utterly adrift. He can't visit his parents when his father is home, as they are not on speaking terms. He stays out late drinking and seems to have no desire to find a job in the civilian world. Worst of all, his relationship with his fiancée is crumbling. Wilson makes sure that Dan is not entirely sympathetic by having the character be rude and boorish to Nicole, but also displays credible flashes of vulnerability with both her and Gaelle, with whom he goes on a blind date.
Azéma's character is tricky, as she must make her Bible-reading character appropriately pious and kind, but with a hidden sexual side, and not make the whole package seem cheap and/or campy. Azéma's performance keeps Charlotte grounded in reality; she plays the role with restraint and grace. If we as an audience were not explicitly shown this side of her as we are in certain scenes, one would never guess this woman's shocking diversion. Best of all, the script offers no revelatory scene where Charlotte blurts out her secret with some hamfisted, contrived explanation for her behavior. Instead, we see her deftly move between her public and private selves.
Finally, there's Arditi. His Lionel is a classic world-weary type. He's always clad in the same black suit and tie, and attends to his duties in the bar quietly and seriously, dispensing both drinks and advice as needed. He moves through the movie as though he shoulders a heavy burden; one that he only seems to shrug off when the understanding Charlotte is there to listen and comfort him. Lionel clearly feels affection, and probably something beyond it, for the kindly Charlotte, but in Arditi's face, that longing for connection is as clear as it is heartbreakingly unspoken.
The only drawbacks in this film are minimal at best. The transition of snowfall from scene to scene could have been dropped without my missing it, but on the other hand, it didn't really detract from the film either. And while Resnais' camerawork is generally solid, there is a handful of jarringly unnecessary zooms that really don't work. In addition, the fact that Arthur's father is never actually shown (he's in another room that the camera never enters), while in keeping with Resnais' tendency to physically separate his characters, smacks just a little bit of gimmickry.
Genius Products have put out a DVD that looks and sounds fine. Cinematographer Eric Gautier's lush, diverse color palette shines in this transfer. Unfortunately, there are no special features of any kind.
Resnais is to be commended for exhibiting such a sure and steady directorial hand at the age of 85. Only in small, isolated incidents does the comedy in the film go a bit overboard; otherwise, Resnais has fashioned a tonally solid film. He's got both the actors and, with the exception of those zooms, the camera, under control. And while it may lack the heft of, say, Hiroshima Mon Amour, on its own terms, it succeeds quite nicely.
Resnais and co. are not guilty, but Genius Products gets a chiding for the lack of features.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
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