Monday, November 29, 2010

Cinema Obscura: Je t'aime, je t'aime

For a filmmaker as concerned about the vagaries of time, memory and regret as Alain Resnais, it's a preconceived notion that he would eventually make a film dealing specifically about time travel. That's the main case with "Je t'aime, je t'aime", a film about a man (Claude Rich) trapped in the limbo of his life exactly one year ago. But this ain't "Back To the Future". Resnais' film is a fractured, studied and oblique effort that requires some patience and a bit of investigation as Resnais jumbles up images, ideas and sounds backwards and forwards. Never one to rely on formal or linear storytelling, "Je t'aime, je t'aime" is one of Resnais' most challenging pieces, and with "Hiroshima Mon Amour", "Muriel" and "Last Year At Marienbad" already under his belt by the time this film was released in 1968, that's saying something.

"Je t'aime, je t'aime" begins with Claude waking up in a hospital after his attempt at suicide. He's approached by a group of scientists and doctors (who feel he is the perfect candidate as a man with nothing to lose) and asked to participate in their project. Claude agrees and he's introduced to their experiment, which involves time travel. The group will send him back in time exactly one year ago, for one minute. As always, something goes wrong and Claude is stuck in the chamber for much longer than that. Resnais aggressively cuts back and forth between mundane images of Claude working, his vacation with his girlfriend as he emerges from scuba diving (in a scene that's replayed at least a dozen times), the squabbles that led up to his suicide and other moments in his life. There's very little explanation, and after awhile the images flood over the viewer as we try and ascertain the timeline and reasoning behind this jig-saw of memories and seemingly benign interactions. One cut can travel years or seconds... and in Resnais world there's often very little difference. This characteristic has been evident in Resnais work for years. In his 1984 film, "Love Unto Death", the film opens with a man having a seizure and his wife crying over him as he lays still. The next scene, the wife is crying downstairs, trying to figure out who to call and what to say. The husband then wanders downstairs, yawns and apologizes for falling asleep. For the remainder of the film, Resnais watches this couple's interaction with their friends as they question life and death. Is the man really dead? Is he simply a projection for the rest of the characters to ponder the fragility of life? There's no overt explanation, and while "Love Unto Death" is certainly one of Resnais' more glacial films, it's a single edit that casts doubt over the other 90 minutes. In "Je t'aime, je t'aime" the edits reel one back and forth between reality and memory with startling immediacy, continually posing ideas and answers before taking it away the next.

I admit, I've long been an admirer of the loopy idea of time travel. And while there have been some interesting cases on the subject, I'm not sure the whole theory actually holds together. Yet the idea of us being able to willfully change something in our past to avoid future harm or humiliation is probably deeply embedded in human nature. "Je t'aime, je t'aime" posits a radically different idea, turning the sci-fi genre on its nouvelle vague ear and draining the excitement out of the possibility. For Claude, being stuck in time feels like bland, tormented hell as he lives out simple moments of his life over and over, with all signs poitning to the fact that Claude will probably still attempt suicide. As a final, tongue-in-cheek joke, the small mouse that was the experiment forebearer to Claude continues to wheel around in his cage.... both animal and man confined to their own fishbowls with little hope of escape.

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