Alain Resnais is, I believe, best known for his first two feature films, Hiroshima mon amour (1959; my thoughts here) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), two films that explore memory and the fragmentation of time and identity as individuals proceed to eek out their days in the present. In these films, with the help of writers such as Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Resnais produced a vivid and visual interpretation of William Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He continues to zoom in on this theme with another enigmatic, fragmented narrative structure in his fifth feature, Je t’aime, je t’aime, which is getting a lovely Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber today.
As before, to script this film Resnais sought help from an author known for experimental work, this time to the Belgian absurdist science fiction writer Jacques Sternberg. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum who wrote the essay that is included with Kino’s release, the film’s script was formed out of 800 to 900 pages of Sternberg’s automatic writing, which consisted of many large fragments. While a film that results from such a process might not sound appealing, Resnais and Sternberg have put together a tightly constructed film that, despite the fragmented narrative, is more accessible than either Hiroshima mon amour or Last Year in Marienbad, the latter of which is famously tough, if not impossible, to crack — not that it should crack.
Some of the accessibility is due to the film’s framing device. As mentioned above, Sternberg was known as a science fiction writer, and Je t’aime, je t’aime is ostensibly a science fiction film that incorporates time travel. While it doesn’t appear that Resnais was particularly interested in the science fiction element as anything other than a means to explore the past’s effects on the present, the device serves as something to get us into the story. It allows us to explore, in terms that we are more comfortable with since the science fiction helps us open up to the irrational, the way the past assaults us, though we may be too scared to meet our memories head on.
The protagonist is a man named Claude Ridder (Claude Rich). When the film starts, he is being released from the mental hospital where he was receiving treatment after attempting to commit suicide (he quips that he was never very good with guns; that’s why he missed). He barely gets out the door when he is approached by a couple of scientists who ask if he’d like to participate in an experiment. He knows little about the experiment, just that it’s something to do with time travel and that, as the first human subject, he is the ideal candidate because, as they’ve seen by his recent actions, he has nothing to lose.
Claude is very willing. He doesn’t even go home first but gets right into their car and travels to the rural research facility. When asked if he’s scared he says that he has been afraid most of his life, but that he isn’t anymore. He lies down on the strange orb, and the experiment is a success: he is sent back in time to relive (though not interact with or change) his past.
From the drab experimental chamber, Claude bursts from the sea. He is on vacation with his lover, Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot). However, the experiment is not as safe as the scientists had hoped. Once Claude has ventured into the past, he keeps shifting from one scene to another, then to another, all out of chronological order. He repeats many of them; indeed, he bursts from the sea so many times that it starts to feel more like he’s floundering, trying not to drown. The scientists do not know how to retrieve him.
As I mentioned above, the science fiction element is incidental. This isn’t really a movie about sending someone into the past and then not being able to retrieve him. In Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay, he says the film, “as Resnais himself pointed out, consists not of flashbacks but of moments of entrapment in a perpetual present.” It’s a movie about someone who has actively, but futilely, avoided his past; when he revisits it, which we do in memory, he drowns in it.
The fragmented narrative, which may frustrate some, is necessary as it allows us to circle the primary catalysts for trauma, much as we may do in real life. Our mind swirls back to events orbiting the heart of the matter. The fragmentation is a way of cutting things off before we get too close. In Je t’aime, je t’aime, it takes us some time to feel (I won’t use the word understand as that implies resolution) what is going on, just what the narrative is avoiding, but we get enough information early on to feel the emotional stakes.
We see Claude with Catrine together, but we know that they were not together at the beginning of the movie. Indeed, we learn soon that Catrine is dead. Claude struggles to continue living — or cease to live — in the present despite his difficult past.
I personally still like Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad more. I find their enigmas, the lack of a stabilizing framing device, more invigorating, but I’ve had more time with them. I’ve found that Je t’aime, je t’aime is digging into my subconscious in similar ways, so who knows how it will settle down and affect me in the future. I’m looking forward to the relationship, and I highly recommend the film.
Supplements: The Kino disc comes with a number of insightful supplements that look at the film more than just the film production. Those are my favorite kind.
- First we get a 12:43-minute audio interview with Alain Resnais. I love listening to Resnais discuss what he was going for with any particular film. He is thoughtful and sophisticated, and he can articulate in language many of the things that I thought might only be expressible (if at all) in film. I was likewise fascinated to learn that, for him, the title Je t’aime, je t’aime sounds like an alarm going off. I had not considered that before, but it does help explain the title treatment: when the film begins, the title shows up in bright red on black.
- Next we get a 15:45-minute interview with Claude Rich. Though he’s worked with a number of great directors — René Clair, Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, among others — I don’t really know him or his work. I came to appreciate him more as the film went on and I watched him develop a character through non-chronological fragments. Here he talks mostly about the experience of making the film.
- Lastly, other than a trailer and the essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, which I brought up above, we get a 20:31-minute feature called The Meeting of Alain Resnais and Jacques Sternberg. This is mainly an interview with Sternberg by film scholar François Thomas. I loved this feature, especially since I enjoy hearing how Resnais worked with writers who often had little or nothing to do with film before Resnais came calling. Working on this film was meaningful for Sternberg: if you want to read more stories about Claude’s time travels, he’s written them.