Amid the jeering, booing and applause that greeted the winners of Cannes Film Festival’s last edition in May, a man in a black suit, red shirt, white sneakers and groovy shades, ascended the stage, accompanied by a long, warm standing ovation that seemed to last for eternity, to receive a life-time achievement award.
At the age of 87, the inimitable French filmmaker Alain Resnais was the coolest man in the room, and for his fans, myself included, that moment was the real highlight of the much talked about closing ceremony.
Known largely for his earlier “difficult masterpieces, Resnais’ biggest commercial success in France was in fact a small romantic musical released near the end of last decade. The seven-time César winning “On connaît la chanson (Same Old Songs, 1997) was regarded by many as a light Resnais; a major departure from the modernist concerns and experimentation of his earlier works.
Screening next Sunday at the French Culture Center in Alexandria, “Same Old Songs does indeed work like a highly entertaining musical comedy with a straightforward narrative and brief, wispy intellectual connotations.
Watching the film 12 years after its release, I was quite struck by how “Same Old Songs is, as a matter of fact, a quintessential Resnais.
The visual style is more toned down from his earlier work, and the strong emotional and artistic charge of his earlier films has subsided to some extent. Yet, the distinctive themes of memory, forgetfulness, time and regret that defined almost his entire work remains front and center in “Songs; a dazzling picture brimming with buoyancy, tenderness and sadness.
Despite emerging in the late 50s with the French New Wave, Resnais wasn’t a member of the legendary Cahiers du Cinema circle that included Godard, Truffaut, Rivette and Rohmer. Technically, Resnais belonged to the lesser known Left Bank, or Rive Gauche group, whose most famous associates included Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Demy.
Before venturing into feature films, Resnais had already established himself as a remarkable documentary filmmaker with his seminal short “Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1959), a stark study of the Nazi concentration camps that eschewed footage of the holocaust in place of images of the empty camps accompanied by the recollections of one of the victims.
Resnais’ themes of guilt, trauma and responsibility would surface again in his first feature film “Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) an unsettling tale of the relationship between a French actress and a Japanese architect set in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. Considered one of the defining works of the French New Wave period, the film was followed by the ever beguiling “Last Year at Marienbad (1961), one of most discussed avant-garde films of all time.
By his third feature “Muriel ou Le temps d’un retour (1963), the characteristics of Resnais’ cinema were well founded: the elusiveness of truth, the agility and indistinctness of time, the subjectivity of memory and its tortuous ways by which it shapes our lives.
Realized with lush cinematography, complex, convention-defying narrative structure and elaborate, yet refined, editing, Resnais’ philosophical journey continued to explore uncharted terrains of the human psyche with several lyrical pictures such as “La guerre est finie (1966) “Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) and “Providence (1977), to a name a few.
The 80s was mostly a lull period for Resnais and by the early 90s; critics had almost written him off. In 1993, Resnais stunned critics and audience with his five-hour, two part epic “Smoking/No Smoking; an adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s multi-character play “Intimate Exchanges.
Adapted to screen by a little-known writer/actress named Agnès Jaoui and supporting actor Jean-Pierre Bacri (who also star in the film), the film was an unexpected success, winning Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear Award in addition to five Césars that included best film, writing and direction.
Perhaps that’s why the success of “Same Old Songs was not surprising.
Based on Jaoui and Bacri’s original script about the entangled relationships of six middle-class Parisians, the film was dedicated to English dramatist Dennis Potter, known for using pop songs to reflect the fantasies of his characters in works like “Pennies from Heaven and “The Singing Detective.
Bacri plays a Nicolas, a hypochondriac entrepreneur searching for an apartment in Paris to settle in with his wife and kids. Nicolas’ marriage is on the rocks and the apartment haunting becomes an excuse to divulge his misgivings and fears to middle-aged estate agent Simon (André Dussollier).
Simon is a part-time radio playwright with a passion for the history of Paris.
He develops a crush for agoraphobic tour-guide/graduate student Camille (Jaoui) who happens to be dating Simon’s arrogant, manipulative, sweet-talking young boss Marc (Lambert Wilson).
Camille’s sister and Nicolas’ control-freak ex-girlfriend Odile (Resnais’ wife Sabine Azema) is also searching for an apartment in an attempt to break the tediousness of her marriage to Claude (Pierre Arditi) whom she accuses of indecisiveness and his failure to take charge of anything.
Like Potter’s works, Resnais uses snippets of diverse songs – ranging from a five-second line from an old ballroom swing tune to two-minute modern punk – his protagonists lip-sync to at different intervals of the film. The songs don’t only reflect the inner thoughts of Resnais’ protagonists, they act as their subconscious, catching them off-guard, blurting out loud the unspeakable emotions they hide from each other and perhaps also from themselves.
Unlike Resnais’ early works, “Same Old Songs is talkative. The visual sumptuousness of “Hiroshima and “Marienbad is rarely glimpsed in a story staged predominantly in interior locations. The extreme close-ups and the haptic texture of his first films are also nowhere to be seen in here. On surface, “Same Old Songs is seen as a classical French rom-com with fully-developed characters.
Underneath the surface though is a rich reservoir of déjàvus, self-delusions, collective and personal memories and crossing paths in search for happiness. None of the Resnais’ protagonists have the courage to confront their reality, and when they finally do; their world momentarily start to crumble. Reality has always been treated by Resnais as a flimsy notion with weak foundation. In “Songs, the characters consciously and subconsciously adjust their reality according to their dreams and fantasies, a technique that thwarts them from recognizing themselves and others as well.
The happiness they ultimately find in the company of one another is comforting, yet non-definitive. The songs of Charles Aznavour, Dalida, Johnny Hallyday, Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker unfurl to embody the one solid constant of their lives.
Every melody of every song occupies an unchanged place in time for Resnais’ men and women. Each song encloses personal memories, imaginings, specific images of the past and the future and a time lying outside the borders of the present.
The brilliance of “Same Old Songs is how these themes are spontaneously woven into the basic fabric of the story. The warmth and gentleness of the film is not a courtesy of Resnais’ as much as it is of Jaoui’s. Jaoui would later take the director’s chair, making a big splash with the likes of “The Taste of Others, “Look at Me and “Let’s Talk about the Rain that compelled several critics to hail her as the French female Woody Allen.
Her indelible signature is stamped strongly in her second collaboration with Resnais not only in the playful push and pull between the protagonists, but in matching the songs with the characters that leads to some of the funniest moments of the film.
“Same Old Songs is the perfect summer film for adults. Eleven years later, the film doesn’t fail to amuse, delight and stimulate. Resnais’ old films have aged gracefully while his modern works, “Same Old Songs and “Pu
blic Fears in Private Places included, feels more contemporary than ever.
By the end of the film though, Resnais’ jolt of guarded optimism always hits me. Resnais gives the impression that his happy ending is short-lived; that his character’s long and tiring journey is not far from over.
What ultimately left for the characters to savor are old strewn memories, drifting yearnings and a handful of old songs.
“Same Old Songs is screening on Sunday, June 28, at the French Culture Center’s Alexandria branch. Tel: (03) 391 8952