Setting aside the frothy pleasures of “Not on the Lips,” Alain Resnais returns to his key themes of loneliness and separation. With “Private Fears in Public Places” he’s also come back to Alan Ayckbourn, transported to Paris thanks to Jean-Michel Ribes’ very French adaptation, though a certain underlying Englishness is never quite subsumed. Despite a perfect cast of Resnais regulars plus the master’s own impeccable crafting, the characters fail to grip, and with approximately 50 short scenes, development comes in fits and starts. Beyond fests, it’s hard to see where the pic will play except in Paris itself.
Whether auds cotton to the story may depend on a tolerance for Ayckbourn, whose plays deal with the solidly middle class behaving, well, solidly middle class. Unlike “Smoking/No Smoking,” here Resnais uses just one play, bringing out the inchoate yearning in the protags’ souls, but the constant scene changes, beautifully signaled by falling snow, hamper involvement.
Nicole (Laura Morante) looks for an apartment with broker Thierry (Andre Dussollier), unsuccessfully searching for a place large enough for herself and fiance Dan (Lambert Wilson). The first she sees has been infelicitously cut in two, an apt metaphor for the dividers and divisions that permeate the film.
Thierry works with Charlotte (Sabine Azema), a religious woman in gray sweaters whose cheeriness and sing-song voice clothe a fragile exterior supported by faith. She loans Thierry a videotape of a religious program that he accepts merely because he’s flirting; while fast-forwarding he discovers what appears to be an erotic self-recording of Charlotte in sexy get-up, though her face can’t be seen.
Ever the Good Samaritan, Charlotte looks after the violently cantankerous father of Lionel (Pierre Arditi), the chief bartender at a fancy hotel restaurant that also happens to be the hang-out for the out-of-work Dan. When Nicole can no longer tolerate Dan’s drinking and directionless outlook, they agree to split, and Dan places a personal ad in the paper.
His first reply is from Gaelle (Isabelle Carre), Thierry’s younger live-in sister and possibly the saddest character of all, waiting most nights at a local cafe, a flower in her buttonhole to identify her for the men whose ads she’s replied to but who never show.
“A shot of joy won’t do any harm” says Thierry — but few receive it, and when it does come it never lasts. The videotape Thierry watches, recorded over and over but still retaining something from the past, works as a metaphor for people who may perhaps begin anew but can’t shake prior experiences.
Juggling all these characters isn’t much of a problem (though the waspish Nicole gets the least screen time): more problematic is the pile-up of short scenes. Throughout, Resnais underscores the invisible walls separating people with real dividers, including an opaque office partition between Thierry and Charlotte or the beaded curtain that splits Lionel’s bar in two. Thesping, unsurprisingly, is flawless from this group of finely honed theater actors, with special praise going to Arditi as the model of the discreet bartender.
Working within small studio spaces, Resnais, with ace d.p. Eric Gautier, emphasizes the theatrical origins of the piece, not only in the acting but lighting (on the strong side, adding to a flat feeling) and general staging. Gorgeous snowflakes are used in all but one scene change; a touching shot toward the end with Charlotte and Lionel clasping hands in the snow forms the most moving image. Helmer Bruno Podalyes (“The Mystery of the Yellow Room”) directs the very amusing religious TV show.