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Saturday
Aug162008

Private Fears in Public Places

The slow but systematic demolition of cultural stereotypes has been heralded as one of the great benefits of the unstoppable force known as globalization, a point which  I will not belabor.  However you may feel about this development (and this will truly depend on your cultural heritage and station in life), we would all do well not to make simple assumptions about other traditions, nations, and peoples, even if we are somewhat obliged to do so to gain some preliminary understanding of how we might have to adjust.   In this respect, admittedly, I am an old-fashioned prig.  I advocate and will continue to advocate immersion into the foreign culture without surfacing for air until the seafloor has been sufficiently investigated.  Perhaps it is obvious that spending a week in a hotel in Florence with scant knowledge of the language and no interest in anything save this museum does not qualify you as an expert in all things Italian.  But many scholars of languages and cultures consider themselves well-versed in their field after a frivolous summer sipping malted beverages, reading some overexposed popular novel, and cavorting with the local party people.  For many, this will be the only time they will have to enjoy world travel, a privilege that we tend to take for granted, and experience the grandeur of cultural Meccas that have enthralled visitors for centuries.  We cannot blame them for being socially labile, and, in point of fact, we won't.

Nevertheless, over time, devoted students of a discipline will come to certain provisional theories about their passion; the really good ones will continue to subject that passion to repeated scrutiny.  Take, for example, French film.  If you had to come up with one short sentence to stereotype the very rich tradition of cinema in France, what would come to mind?  Jaded philosophers sitting for hours in cafés, arguing about the abstract but doing nothing particularly active?  Frisky love affairs and romantic walks by the Seine?  You might find a lot of this, I suppose; but the true indicator of French cinema is something terribly French: attention to the details of character (commercially-driven directors think the "details of character" entail a lunchbox of petty neuroses, as if neurosis has ever made anyone more interesting).  Details of character are revealed by what people do, but really more by what they say.  The French, they will tell you themselves, enjoy arguing and build rapport through arguing; they have few problems communicating how they feel; and they do not shy away from grandiose approaches to everyday issues.  For that reason, if you watch this recent film set in the 13th arrondissement of the City of Lights, you may wonder why the six characters – five of whom are French-born, the other being Italian – behave so curiously.

Without peeking at the credits we might also consider other oddities.  The characters are paired off according to romantic interest or familial obligation and, for the sake of narrative, permitted to overlap to make each member of the sextet significant.  We have Dan, the discharged soldier (Lambert Wilson); his Italian-born girlfriend Nicole (the ever-stunning Laura Morante); Thierry (André Dussollier, who recently appeared in another French film that has nothing French about it), the real estate agent who shows the unhappy couple a few apartments they probably couldn't afford; Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), Thierry's much younger sister and flatmate; Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), a religious fanatic who happens to work with Thierry; and Lionel (Pierre Arditi), the bartender who lends Dan a half-cocked ear, a much better proposition than coming home to his ill and belligerent father.  This may all sound like a lovely soap opera setup – yet there are a few kinks.  Charlotte may indeed have found God, but she has not lost much of the sex appeal that allowed her to pursue other professions prior to her conversion.  Lionel, on the other hand, is completely oblivious to any women in his immediate vicinity.  In our modern age, the personalities of these once-gagged characters are given full vent, which shows us exactly how far we've come.  The problem is, there is little more to them than that.  Charlotte is enlisted to care for Lionel's father while he works, and comes up with some energetic methods to entertain her patient.  And Lionel, for his part, doesn't do much at all.  He listens to Dan, who has no money, spiraling interest in his bossy girlfriend, and plenty of self-doubt following his dishonorable release from the armed forces.  Is he attracted to Dan?  Clues from the film promote such a reading.  And yet, how can any character be developed if his only trait is his non-vanilla sexuality?

Herein lies our problem.  Private fears in public places (unfortunately rechristened as "Hearts" in French) was originally a British stage production by this famous playwright,  a fact which should surprise us about as much as Dan's insufferable lack of self-awareness.  All six characters are unhappy in some way: antsy, presumptuous, hesitant, almost repressed, their thoughts and emotions reflect nothing of the mix of warmth and arrogance that typically color the figures of French cinema.  That's not to say that France does not or could not contain such people, but rather that they exhibit more typically Anglo-Saxon behavior.  To put it another way: you would be hard-pressed to find a Danish film where everyone is warm, friendly, physically affectionate and devoid of that special brand of wry humor that only seems to exist in Northern Europe.  When I watch a Danish film, I expect a certain restraint, a certain formality of emotion, a certain yearning that cannot quite be expressed.  These expectations are reinforced by experience, yet they also tell you a bit about why you like one country more than another.  I have always loved Northern Europe precisely because when emotion is expressed, it is invariably sincere.  It might be hard to make a Dane ebullient or effusive, but once turned on, you have something very valuable.

That said, the film is exquisitely acted and shot, which, given Resnais's previous masterpieces, we might tend to overlook.  And there is something quaint about trapping the characters in a British play, forcing them onstage in Noah's Ark pairs, and asking them to spout off cultural witticisms that the French language is unaccustomed to holding.  Dan's sour grapes routine propels him to the forefront of the sextet, perhaps because the most important character will necessarily be the one exhibiting the broadest range of flaws.  But we should not forget Thierry, who seems old enough to be Gaëlle's father (as it were, the actors are twenty-five years apart in age), and his marvelous misinterpretation of Charlotte's intentions, nor Dan and Gaëlle's date, nor Nicole's attempt to make something useful out of her boyfriend, an exercise in futility typified by their discussion of Dan's "study" (Dan is a non-reader).  And the tone is set perfectly by Paris and softly falling snow, at once reminders of paradise and slow extinction.  How strange to think that one of the few features of Ayckbourn's play not retained is the most fitting: the name.  Ah, but the French always have to do things their way.

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