Monday, May 7, 2012

In Praise of "Providence"

The last Alain Resnais movie I wrote about was "Last Year in Marienbad," a conceptually intriguing, but altogether maddening piece of surrealist cinema. The film was designed as a puzzle with no answer, depicting a series of events, some repeated with different variations, without ever giving the audience the proper context to draw any concrete conclusions about them. Resnais's subsequent 1977 English language feature "Providence," has many of the same themes and ideas, but presented less abstractly. There is a comparatively straightforward narrative, with a conclusion that is very helpful in untangling everything that came before. It's not as daring and subversive as "Marienbad," but I found "Providence" to be a far more satisfying experience.

The film begins with an old man named Clive Langham (John Gielgud), a famous writer and intellectual who lies in bed alone on a stormy night. He can't sleep, and is perhaps ill and dying, so he turns his attentions to the trio of Claude Langham (Dirk Bogarde), a pitiless prosecutor, his unsatisfied wife Sonia (Ellen Burstyn), and a soldier, Kevin (David Warner), who Sonia seeks as a lover after Claude fails to convict him for a strange killing. We jump, temporally and spatially, to the court room, to the couple's home, to a city street, following the development of this venomous love triangle. They seem to inhabit a country at war, but we never learn which one, and though the story appears to take place in the modern day, it's difficult to be sure.

Are these characters and places from the new novel that Clive is writing? We hear his commentary on the story as it unfurls, chastising Claude for his numerous faults and goading on Sonia's infidelity, but Clive only appears to have a limited amount of control over the events. He can call for certain scenes to be replayed, but the characters have strong minds of their own. Certain elements keep recurring that he rejects, but cannot escape. There are numerous references that point to Claude and Sonia being Clive's real son and daughter-in-law, and perhaps the old man is exerting some surreal, god-like power over their actual reality. Or is Clive merely dreaming and reliving memories? Or is he secretly one of the characters in this bitter domestic drama? Is he all of them? The final scenes appear to hold the key, but how can we be sure that they are any more real than the rest of the film?

"Providence" benefits from an extremely strong cast, full of British and American acting luminaries. There are lots of interesting psychological angles to play with here, and the actors go at it with gusto. Elaine Strich plays both Helen, Claude's dying mistress, and Molly, Clive's departed wife, with a certain detached amusement. I especially enjoyed Dick Bogarde's perpetually sneering, condescending Claude, who can't seem to go five minutes without lobbing dry insults at someone, but finds himself in a stalemate with Burstyn's Sonia, who is more amorphous in construction but no less willful. David Warner is at his most soulful as Kevin, who finds himself a pawn for all the other characters to push about as they like, his personality occasionally subsumed entirely when the author needs him to stand in for someone else. And there's Gielgud of course, who gives us Clive as gleeful sadist, as frightened mortal at the edge of the abyss, and finally as a humbled, regretful father.

If there was any issue with the language barrier for French director Resnais, there's no indication of it. The script is extremely literate, sophisticated, and executed flawlessly. Resnais's trademark surrealism neither hampers nor distracts from it, but rather provides an interesting complement, from ominous Gothic music to the ambiguity of the physical spaces where Clive's story takes place. In some respects "Providence" is just as confounding as "Last Year in Marienbad," offering plenty of hints, but no real answers as to what is real and what is only a dream. However, this time we have a clear emotional arc to follow, that of Clive Langham, as he wrestles with his inner demons projected, or perhaps embodied in his ever-shifting characters. "Providence" has all the familiar earmarks of an end-of-life memoir, a remarkably bitter and cynical one. And that was enough to get me invested in the fates of these terrible, impossible people.

I got off on the wrong foot with Alain Resnais, but he's quickly becoming one of my favorite directors. I appreciate the way that he experiments with the narrative, playing with meta and non-linearity long before it came into vogue in the 1990s, and with a far more intellectual approach than I've seen anyone else manage yet. Resnais's films have been hard to find, but they've been rewarding. I still can't stand "Last Year in Marienbad," but I admire the creative impulse behind it, which is hard at work in "Providence." I have the awful suspicion that I may have connected more easily with this film simply because it was in English. I guess I'll just have to go and dig up more of Resnais's work to find out.

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