2006, Movies

Private Fears in Public Places aka Coeurs (2006, Alain Renais)

This is an incredibly stagey French adaptation of a British play. I’m not familiar with the playwright but I can’t imagine getting excited about seeing one of his plays, if this is faithful.

It’s a play in numerous, mostly brief, scenes, usually featuring only two characters. Their lives intertwine (because of course they do) and they are all unhappy. I can see how something like this might be quite impressive on stage, perhaps, especially if the staging is done well. But it’s the kind of thing that I feel like I’ve seen variations of in many films, only without the absolute staginess and the transistions. Otherwise, a bunch of people’s unhappy lives intersecting in tragicomic ways was, well, not a new thing in 2006. (It might have been a little less trite in 2006 but I watched this in 2021 and there’s nothing I can do about that.)

For the most part, Resnais really leans into the staginess: it’s obvious the film uses sets, each scene is separated by (poor) CGI snow (and one scene includes some “real” fake snow), and sometimes Resnais films the scenes from above, showing the set walls. Occasionally Resnais busts out some neat camera moves which enliven things and make it feel more like a film than a film of a play but, for the most part, it’s not clear to me that I’m watching a film directed by the man who made Last Year at Marienbad.

But it’s not just the filming that doesn’t always work. It’s also the script, and I’m not sure whether that’s the play itself, the adaptation or, at times, the fact that I was watching a foreign film. There are a few things in the script that just do not make sense, specifically when Dan feels like his life is over because he will never be able to find Gaelle. He’s contacted her somehow before, right? Why can’t he do that again? And there are multiple moments when characters could solve their conflicts by saying one thing, something that is always a pet peeve of mine unless the scene is exceptionally funny or exceptionally well done.

And then there’s the comedy: most of the jokes did not land for me, in part because I read the subtitle just before the gag (I suspect). This is not necessarily the film’s fault but I know I laughed out loud once and thought many times “oh that was a joke”. Would an English version have been more effective for me? I have no idea, because the humour is safe and mild and very much just a typical humour of circumstance. It’s lightly farcical at least in this telling. I hate to blame this on the subtitles – as you know, I watch tons of foreign films and prefer subtitles to overdubbing – but I do wonder if I would have found it funnier in English.

But there are deeper problems for me, than the jokes not landing. Though I am happy the film is far more downbeat than its DVD cover suggested, I just don’t really understand why this story of unhappy people failing to connect is one worthy of so much acclaim. I’ve seen a lot of movies like this over the years and many of them were more successful as films.


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