Alain Resnais has had quite a career. His French New Wave-ish films, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, La Guerre Est Finie are pretty influential. He deals with time and memory (no surprise that he worked with Robbe-Grillet, then). Even his actual time travel film, Je t’aime, je t’aime, doesn’t simply look at time as a phenomenon to be stared at, slack-jawed, but at a way to recapture certain parts of a lost humanness.
Still working at the age of nearly 90, Resnais’ 2006 film is much less formalist, and much lighter aesthetically in general than the aforementioned. It’s an ensemble piece that follows a few people in Paris whose lives intersect. What makes this film a worthwhile watch is not only the pretty interesting, and at times funny, narrative, or the excellent cast, but also Resnais’ continued interest in spaces and temporality/transience.
When did Resnais become funny? There’s a character in Private Fears who is a closet-dominatrix and a staunch Christian on the surface, another who is convinced his co-worker is sending him pornographic, flirtatious messages via videotaped television shows, and an old man who launches into sometimes-awkward, mostly-hilarious tirades at his caretaker.
The film is also full of loneliness and hurt, which keeps it at least somewhat aligned with the earlier films. Where in those films (Hiroshima, Marienbad, Guerre, in particular) the characters look to the past for some kind of healing or understanding, in Private Fears the characters look to the future: a couple on the verge of breaking up searches tirelessly and hopelessly for a new home, a woman continuously tries a dating service. It’s often a dark, distraught future, and many of these characters end up more alone than when they started and were physically together with someone, but Resnais, as his style has evolved and as he has aged, seems to posit that one can gain as much understanding from interpreting a known past as from an unknown future. He also seems to say, somewhat ironically, that the future can be as clear as the past.
Resnais uses a consistent transition from scene-to-scene. It’s the beautiful, simple image of snow falling. Sometimes it looks to fall within the scene, which, as we become more accustomed to its usage, signals to us before it happens that we are about to exit and move onto a new location/character. It’s interesting that he’d cue us prior to the cut. It’s a small preparation moment, and sometimes lessens the harshness of the oft-sad world we’re watching. It’s as though he wants the loneliness to be pervasive but doesn’t want his audience to be as overwhelmed as his characters.
There’s a gorgeous moment towards the end, at a critical reveal, when the snow falls, but doesn’t transition. It falls in an impossible place (inside, where there’s a ceiling fully intact). It’s a nice trick: because of what we’ve become accustomed to, we now expect the cut and it doesn’t happen. The moment is prolonged beyond our expectations. We’re forced to stay in a moment of sorrow, but one that also features real, true human connection. By basically fooling us with the snow “non-transition” Resnais gives us one true moment in his film where we are shocked by the form. It’s a moment where, when we realize we aren’t able to leave, we are at first uncomfortable by being “forced” to stay. It’s not that we feel voyeuristic, it’s that we’re not used to seeing problems taken to their conclusion/resolution in this film. Up to now we’ve been on the cliff at the end of each scene, but we’ve neither jumped nor stepped away. This is the final plunge (or salvation…depending on your interpretation) and Resnais puts it right at the end of the third act – real closure.
The snow does more than this, including personifying the tears of the character, and adding an unnatural, supernatural aura to an otherwise commonplace scene (read: telling us that there’s more to the world than what we commonly see).