Although they’re highly contrived, Alain Resnais’ early films don’t seem detached from the real world because they’re haunted by memories of actual horrors such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the Algerian War. But as the director has continued working, still brilliant if less recognized, he has withdrawn ever further from realism, making movies that flaunt their stagey origins, and even venturing into musicals. There are no songs in Private Fears in Public Places, Resnais’ latest intricate entertainment, but the pastel color scheme and intentionally artificial-looking sets are closer to classic MGM musicals than the black-and-white, street-level world of the ’60s French New Wave. The film even opens with a jubilantly impossible, computer-generated swoop through the towers of Bibliothèque Nationale and into the apartment where we meet the first two of the six major characters.
Like Smoking and No Smoking, the matched set of comedies that Resnais directed in 1993, Private Fears is derived from a play by British writer Alan Ayckbourn. Yet, as adapted by Jean-Michel Ribes, the movie feels entirely Parisian, right down to its obsession with real estate (also a theme of the director’s 1997 Same Old Song). Nicole (Laura Morante) is looking for a new, larger apartment to accommodate her and her fiancé, Dan (Lambert Wilson), who was recently booted from the army and is now in a boozy funk. Nicole’s guide to the vacant properties of the 13th arrondissement—an up-and-coming area whose landmark is the Bibliothèque—is amiable rental agent Thierry (André Dussollier). He lives with his much younger sister, Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), a secret devotee of computer dating, and works with Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), who takes comfort in religion but indulges one impure hobby. Charlotte’s do-gooder pastimes include being an evening nursemaid to an irascible (and never-glimpsed) elderly man whose son Lionel (Pierre Arditi) dispenses drinks and counsel at a hotel bar. This retro-futuristic lounge is Dan’s favorite hangout. That’s where he ends up when, during a trial separation from Nicole, he arranges a date with Gaëlle.
The pattern of these overlapping lives, which unfold in fleeting vignettes, is no more naturalistic than the film’s visual design. Resnais even observes some scenes from above, making the sextet’s tiny apartments resemble the lab-rat mazes of his 1980 film, My American Uncle. Yet his tone is never patronizing, and he doesn’t deny his characters’ humanity. Rather than take an either-or view of daily existence, Private Fears suggests that life can be routine and haphazard at the same time. However limited their options, or predictable their reactions, Resnais’ characters can surprise us—and themselves.
Most of the film’s lead players have become Resnais regulars, giving the film the semblance of a repertory-company production. As in theater, age is less important than skill, so the director doesn’t worry that most of the performers look too old for their roles as unsettled, unmarried urbanites. (Of the principals, only Carré and Wilson are under 50, and the latter just barely.) The light is as gentle as the ambience, which is keyed to inserts of gently falling (artificial) snow. The movie is not set in an especially picturesque neighborhood, and the apartment-hunting motif underscores the everyday aggravations of life in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Yet Private Fears is nonetheless enchanted. Its gliding camera and fluid edits are a cinematic palliative to Nicole, Dan, Thierry, Gaëlle, Charlotte, and Lionel’s frustrations and loneliness. And even if romance fails them, the characters are still warmed by one person’s love. However clinically Resnais sends his mice through their maze, it’s clear that he really does cherish them.