Film of the week: Private Fears in Public Places

Veteran French director Resnais and prolific English playwright Ayckbourn combine to great effect

Private Fears in Public Places
(120 mins, 12A)
Directed by Alain Resnais; starring Sabine Azema, Laura Morante, Lambert Wilson, Pierre Arditi, Isabelle Carre, Andre Dussollier

In the mid-1960s Alain Resnais was in his forties and at the height of his fame as a fashionable art house auteur and archetypal Gallic intellectual, having made a string of films concerning the nature of time and memory, most famously Night and Fog (his documentary on Auschwitz), Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel and La Guerre est finie. At that same time Alan Ayckbourn was in his late twenties, a director of a repertory theatre in Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast, and was about to enjoy his first popular success on the West End stage with Relatively Speaking, a clever middle-class comedy in the manner of Noel Coward and Ben Travers, with the echt English cast of Michael Hordern, Celia Johnson and Richard Briers.

You would not have believed then that the two were made for each other. Or that Ayckbourn would go on to be the most prolific, widely produced playwright of his generation yet have only a single play brought to the English-speaking screen, A Chorus of Disapproval, forgotten within weeks despite the presence of Jeremy Irons and Anthony Hopkins in the leading roles. But the careers of both Resnais and Ayckbourn have developed in surprising ways. Ayckbourn's plays became increasingly dark, even tragic, in their presentation of family life and relationships, his plotting ever more complex as his fascination with chance and contingency increased. He once wrote that his interest in time 'was first fuelled when I encountered the work of the father of the time play, JB Priestley'. Meanwhile, from the early 1980s onwards, Resnais largely abandoned the cinematic vanguard with which he was associated to concentrate on film versions of boulevard plays. So when they collaborated in 1993 with the two-part picture Smoking/No Smoking, and now with Private Fears in Public Places (aka Coeurs), it seems the most cordial of ententes imaginable.

Smoking/No Smoking is a two-part film carved from Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges, in which two actors play the headmaster of a private school and his wife as well as seven other citizens of a small Yorkshire town, and it takes eight nights to perform, as the characters go their random, aleatory ways. Adapting it was a formidable task, and Resnais decided to retain the British setting but cast two of his regular actors, Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi, both of whom appear in the new film. Private Fears in Public Places is a very different kind of play, though thematically still concerned with people living on the abyss, their lives pitched somewhere between tragedy and farce. There are seven characters (one of whom is heard but not seen), all of them middle-class Londoners, and the action unfolds in 54 scenes, several of them lasting a matter of seconds. 'I am generally critical of writers who adopt the so-called celluloid approach to stage-play construction,' Ayckbourn has said, but he felt compelled to use it on this occasion, and the result takes place in what might be called a some-man's land between stage and film. The title, he tells us, has been in his mind for some time, awaiting a suitable subject, and presumably it was suggested by the dedication (to Stephen Spender) of WH Auden's 1932 The Orators: 'Private faces in public places/Are wiser and nicer/Than public faces in private places.'

Resnais has switched the setting to a wintry Paris, but as a playful nod in Ayckbourn's direction he places on the wall of a character's flat a vintage 1920s poster that issues an invitation to visit Scarborough. Apart from an aerial view of the principal location, the newly fashionable area of Bercy, up the Seine from the Ile de la Cite, everything happens inside three apartments, a smart hotel restaurant-bar, a cafe, and an estate agent's flashy office. A suave bartender, Lionel (Arditi), lives with his obstreperous bed-ridden father (an unseen Claude Riche), and employs Charlotte, a dedicated Christian (Azema), as a temporary carer in the evenings. Charlotte works in the same estate agent's office as the middle-aged bachelor Thierry (Andre Dussollier), who's trying to find a flat for the earnest Nicole (Laura Morante) and her partner Dan (Lambert Wilson), a drunken ex-army officer. Thierry lives with his young sister, the lovelorn thirtysomething Gaelle (Isabelle Carre), who meets Dan through a dating agency.

Each of the six main characters only meets four of the others, and no one twigs the identity of the one they don't encounter. All of them are in search of love and companionship. They're deeply lonely, though none is a natural loner, and their individual backgrounds, and in some cases the nature of their sexuality, are only hinted at. They live in a sort of emotional and social blur, which is rendered actual by the snow that falls incessantly outside, clings to their shoulders whenever they arrive inside, and briefly fills the whole screen between individual scenes.

The sense of mystery in the plotting and the absence of formal exposition help the excellent cast to give substance to their characters. There are some wonderful running gags, like the appalling behaviour of the bartender's old father, and most especially the cassettes of a dreadful religious TV programme, 'Songs That Changed My Life', which the pious Charlotte lends to her office colleague and which contain, after the programme ends, tantalising pornographic performances featuring herself. But don't go to this film in search of laughs. Private Fears tends to affect the heart rather than the funny bone.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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