“Smoking” and “No Smoking” light up the screen and rev up the intellect. In having the vision and audacity to compress Alan Ayckbourn’s variation-loaded octet of plays into two free-standing but richly complementary feature films, Alain Resnais may have made the first self-regulating interactive movie. It may not require a joystick, but there’s joy aplenty for venturesome auds and arthouse patrons.
Duo can be thought of like a suit: You can wear the pants or jacket separately, but they’re designed to go together. Gallic plexes are unspooling the pix simultaneously on different screens, leaving it to viewers to choose which they see first. Showtimes are arranged so patrons can view back-to-back if desired. Offshore exhibs should consider the same option, rather than tampering with the formula by programming one at a time on a lone screen.
Local consensus seems to prefer the second pic, whichever one that happens to be. Certainly, the two works taken together are greater than the sum of their parts.
Resnais’ duo is drawn from eight Ayckbourn plays (with 16 possible denouements) that require eight consecutive nights to realize onstage. (Plays were premiered at Ayckbourn’s home base of Scarborough, England, in 1982 and were first staged in London in 1984.) Screenwriters have dropped two of the plays, resulting in six tales with 12 potential conclusions.
The ingenious premise is to eavesdrop on the lives, loves, aspirations and disappointments of the nine characters (all played by versatile thesps Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi), abruptly backing up at crucial junctures to ask, “What if …?” and to veer off in another direction.
Forks in the road are signposted by distinctive title cards (by Gallic cartoonist Floc’h), and each trajectory labeled by illustrations announcing “Five days later,””Five weeks later” and “Five years later.”
Both pix begin identically, with an English-accented narrator introing the Yorkshire town of Hutton Buscel and the nine characters who live there. Each is illustrated by a stylized Floc’h portrait.
Each film flows from a similar opening sequence: Faculty wife Celia Teasdale goes onto the terrace, eyes a pack of cigarettes and (according to pic’s title) either lights up or doesn’t. At about the 55-minute point, after recounting one story straight, each pic then asks “what if?” and explores a parallel universe peopled by the same characters. Original time intervals of five days, weeks and years are still respected. Frustration or fulfillment, and sometimes life or death, hang in the balance.
“Smoking” emphasizes the tottering marriage of alcoholic school director Toby Teasdale and his insecure wife Celia; Celia’s tentative relationship with cocky jack-of-all-trades Lionel Hepplewick; and the transformation of Eliza Doolittle-like punkette employee Sylvie Bell.
Lionel falls in love with Celia and either starts an ill-fated business partnership or pursues her incognito to a seaside hotel. Celia either goes off the deep end or summons untold initiative. In a further variation, Lionel and Sylvie are an item, and Sylvie either ties the knot or outgrows the community.
“No Smoking” favors the tottering marriage between wimpish gentleman Miles Coombes and his hot-to-trot wife Rowena, and the friendship between Miles and Toby.
Though the pix brim with theatrical artifice — no more than two characters are visible at a time — they are also 100% cinematic. One of many ongoing delights is that the two thesps change costumes, hair and makeup at a clip that would be impossible onstage.
For example, in “No Smoking,” Miles and Rowena are supposed to dine at Celia and Toby’s home, but conveniently Toby is at the corner pub. When the slightly tipsy Celia exits to check the oven, her discreet mother, Josephine Hamilton, emerges seconds later.
In addition, characters talk to other characters hidden behind retaining walls or off-camera in a house or shed.
Sets by Jacques Saulnier, who has designed all of Resnais’ films since “Stavisky” in 1974, reinforce the jokey tone with consummate artistry. Both pix, though set exclusively in exteriors, were shot totally on soundstages, with sets including a seaside hotel with a cloudswept horizon (“Smoking”) and a coastal cliff with rippling tide and rising fog (“No Smoking”). Seasons and times of day are conveyed via masterly lighting.
The films also mock their sometimes soap opera-ish melodramatics. As Celia gets carried away with hyperbole over the prospect of opening a bakery with Lionel, John Pattison’s music swells to match the increasingly corny, overwrought dialogue. Resnais counterbalances the language transfer by reinforcing British details. Ambient sounds, clothing and accessories couldn’t be more English.
Azema and Arditi, who appeared together in Resnais’ earlier “La Vie est un roman,””L’Amour a mort” and “Melo,” are aces.
Azema exudes fretful midlife anxiety as Celia, spinsterish clout as school administrator Irene Pridworthy and prim discretion as Josephine Hamilton, yet still convinces as twentyish Sylvie and flamboyant live wire Rowena. Arditi employs defeated posture as the dour Toby, polite restraint as Miles, bottomless vigor as Lionel and crotchety resignation as Joe, Lionel’s 77-year-old wheelchair-bound father.
Overall, Resnais’ audacious exercise is just about perfect within the boundaries it sets itself. But some viewers may find the form loses its initial charm through familiarity. One possible pathway is theoretically as good as another — the characters live, die, better their situations or settle for less, but viewers are rarely given enough information to root for one denouement over another.
Pix have already nabbed France’s prestigious Prix Louis Delluc and seem likely candidates for multiple noms for next spring’s Cesar Awards.