(Belatedly for Bastille Day: one of the finest French science-fiction films ever made)
Somewhere in time
Arguably the least seen of his films, Alain Resnais' Je t'aime, je t'aime is also, arguably, his only science fiction feature (though the label could be applied to almost almost every one of his films flirting with the idea of time travel, memory implants, alternate universes).
It's also one of his most underrated. The basic premise has one Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) being talked out of the hospital (where he has just been treated for a failed suicide attempt) and into a car, taken to a laboratory (the Crespel Research Center), injected with a drug called T.5, shut in a time machine that viewers have noted as looking 'organic,' resembling a 'disembodied heart,' or 'large womb' or 'giant brain' (I'd throw in 'humungous fungus' and 'stupendous squash' myself, maybe even a 'mutant pig uterus perforated by plastic skewers in preparation for roasting').
It's the film's one explicit special effect (everything else is achieved through Resnais' precision editing). The scientists mean to send Claude a minute into the past; something goes wrong and the man finds himself bouncing around in time--in his memories--with no one able to pull him out.
The rest of the film assembles Claude's story Resnais-style, in (apparently) haphazard order, the scenery ranging from a beach vacation on the French Riviera to a little dark room in Glasgow. We learn that Claude had a relationship with a woman named Catrice (Olga Georges-Picot) that ended unhappily; that he was also seeing someone named Wiana Lust (Anouk Ferjac), at one point behind the other woman's back; that he had to cope with Catrice's massive bouts of depression, and his own fits of hopelessness.
Being Resnais' fifth fiction feature to deal with unstable memories and unsequential time, you wonder why he felt the need to turn to science fiction and surrealist writer Jacques Sternberg--surely a time machine is too clunky an explanation for what Resnais' characters have been doing (without rational or techonological basis) all this time?
Turns out there is a reason, and Claude himself provides a clue early on, when he tells Catrice the news about a drowned man--that he was known to be a good swimmer, and must have struggled for hours before dying. The understated horror of the story resonates, and you wonder, fleetingly, if Claude was commenting on his own situation. Later in a hilariously static scene where he sits by an office phone talking to himself, he sums up his circumstance with self-pitying eloquence: "It's 3 pm. Three minutes ago it was 3 pm. In three weeks it'll be 3 pm. In a century it'll still be 3 pm. Time passes for everybody but me." On one level it's as good a description of late-afternoon ennui as can be found; on another it's a profound expression of metaphysical torment; on a level beyond that it's Claude's bored-out-of-his-skull summation of his odyssey through time to date.
Which pretty much sums up (for me, anyway) exactly what science fiction--or this particular fictional application of science--brings to the party: unlike in most of Resnais' other films, the protagonist is aware of what's happening, and not in some vague philosophical way; he's been briefed, he's conscious of the time shifts and it's driving him crazy, driving him to despair. At one point a mouse scurries away from him on the Riviera sand. "There's a mouse on the beach!" he informs Catrice incredulously; without missing a beat she replies: "he's on vacation."
Toward film's end we learn dark secrets from Claude's life that may or may not be true (we learn a few things about Catrice as well). Possibly the endless footage of Claude swimming are Resnais' way of reminding us of the drowned swimmer's story (don't you feel tired after the umpteenth repetition of that swim shot?), which in turn is Resnais way of reminding us of Claude's time-travel woes. Resnais returns again and again to the sight of Claude lying in the machine, jerking like a baby during labor (the uterus metaphor might be most appropriate after all), his rants getting progressively incoherent, progressively hopeless. The man is aware that he's a mouse in a cage, his strength and air running out (for someone who at the start of the film seemed completely nonchalant about ending his life--it's why he was chosen for the experiment--he now seems pathetically determined to stretch it out for as long as he could).
Critics have noted the film's influence on a number of titles. I submit that Resnais pulls off many of the effects Kaufman and Gondry achieved in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with far more elan, far less effort and hysteria (no running through different rooms of one's consciousness, for one); that Ramis' Groundhog Day (which runs with the idea of a man conscious of repeating moments in his life) is somewhat funnier but can't quite top that gag about the beach mouse; that the film deals with less inherently dramatic material than The Shining (a haunted giant squash as opposed to a haunted giant hotel) but with a considerably more terrifying sense of existential horror (yes, this is everyday life, and it's mindnumbingly dull).
Might add it's about time to retire the accusation (scribbled out and nailed to his coffin by Pauline Kael, for one) that Resnais is a cold, unaffecting intellectual of a filmmaker. He's remarkably moving, but only if you take the effort to listen to the soft-played melody in the background: ironic, melancholic, full of brave forlorn hope.
First published in Businessworld, 7.2.15