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The Past Persists


Private Fears in Public Places

IFC First Take

Cobra Verde

518 Media, Inc.

After the Wedding

IFC Films

Alain Resnais's career has been long, fertile, and a bit sad. Hisfirst feature, Hiroshima mon amour (1959), caused a worldwidecritical stir, and his second, Last Year at Marienbad (1961),heightened it. (One French critic, his name happily forgotten, saidthat anyone who didn't consider Marienbad the greatest film evermade had no right to be a critic.) Resnais has since made morethan

fourteen films, and now, at age eighty-four, he presents a new one.

At the start, his work involved prominent writers of the day. Hisfirst three films were written (respectively) by Marguerite Duras,Alain Robbe- Grillet, and Jean Cayrol, and although Resnais wasnever a member of the New Wave, he was considered one of thepostwar film-makers who were re-establishing French film in theaesthetic vanguard. Besides playing with time and traditionalnarrative, some of his films, such as La Guerre est finie, werepolitically courageous. Moreover, his work helped to realize thestature of some leading actors: Yves Montand in La Guerre,Jean-Paul Belmondo in Stavisky.

Despite all this and much more, Resnais is now rarely considered amajor figure in French film. When his name comes up, he is alwayscalled masterly, but--other than the hardly minor fact that hiswork is dexterously made--it isn't easy to define his mastery. Whathappened to the director whose pictures were once said to bechanging the film art? In Republic of Images, Alan Williams writesthat "as [Resnais's] career progressed, he clearly decided tomoderate his taste for the formal experiments of avant-gardeliterature, in order to continue to interest audiences in hisworks." But this silky arraignment of Resnais as a sell-out isinsufficient. No Resnais film that I have seen has struck me as asell-out. At their direst, Resnais's films have seemed the work ofan avant-gardist who, like avant-gardists in other arts, hasexhausted his innovations and is needy.

His new picture, Private Fears in Public Places, isn't even quitethat poignant. The screenplay by Jean-Michel Ribes, set in Paris,is based on a play by the mid-tier English playwright AlanAyckbourn (a choice that is a gentle index of intent). From itsopening we feel ourselves relaxing with almost disappointing ease.A trustworthy driver is at the wheel, but he is not taking usanyplace new.

An immediate trouble is the decor. Jacques Saulnier, who heads thedesign team here, has been the art director for many of Resnais'sfilms. Thus, early in his career, Resnais found a designer whocould bring into being the look of a film he had envisioned. AndSaulnier, alas, seems to be filling that function again here. Whatfirst impresses about Private Fears is the look--a cocktail lounge,a hotel restaurant, a real estate office. They are all somewhatself- consciously moderne. They tell us that we are amid people whowant to be a bit ahead of the up-to-date. The settings thus hintsomething about obediently chic standards.

It is winter; sequences are separated by views of snowfall, as ifheaven were providing a curtain from time to time. The contrastbetween designed surface and inevitable nature can be seen, with alittle generosity, to represent the torque of the screenplay.

This is one of those films that tell several independent storieswith no immediate connection, and we watch connections emerge. Asoldier who has been dishonorably discharged and his wearyinggirlfriend; a real estate agent with an uptight sister; the agent'ssecretary, who seems oppressively religious; a suave bartender witha vicious bedridden father--all are presented more or less as theworld sees them, and then we discover secrets in each that linkseveral of them. The private fears become manifest in places thatare more public than was presumably wanted.

Experienced hands could manufacture such screenplays by the carload.Yet the picture is so suavely made that we don't feel disappointeduntil it is over: what chiefly holds us is the quality of theacting. All of the relatively small cast move through their liveslike figures in a well-crafted design, but they discover the designonly at about the same time as we do ourselves. Pleasant thoughthat design may be, we are left at the end with a question. Why wasit worthwhile? Eighty-four or not, what happened to the irruptive,exploratory Alain Resnais?

Cobra Verde is another reminder of the past--in fact, it is part ofthe past. It was made by Werner Herzog in 1987 and stars KlausKinski, who died in 1991. Herzog and Kinski together made two ofthe most startling works of the so- called New German Cinema,Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre. Cobra Verde, the third part of this LatinAmerican set, is only now being released here. Director and stardid other memorable work together, notably Nosferatu the Vampyre andWoyzeck, but those three Latin American pictures are theHerzog-Kinski signet.

"Cobra Verde" is the sobriquet for a Brazilian outlaw in thenineteenth century (the story is adapted from Bruce Chatwin) whomthe government brings under control by hiring him. He is engaged togo to Africa to buy slaves, and most of the action takes placethere. From the opening moments, in which a Brazilian balladeerscratches his fiddle while he speak-sings a prologue, followed byan intense close-up of Kinski's expectedly frightening face andthen a vista of drought-baked landscape littered with dead and dyinganimals, we are with a director who seems to be disruptivelyhurling his vision onto the screen, silently gleeful at oursubmission.

It is too weak to say that Herzog disregards conventions ofnarrative structure and editing: he is there to punish us forattending his film and to make us enjoy it. Other directors have attimes made masochists of us: Herzog excels at this, and he doesn'toften do it more stunningly than in Cobra Verde. Scenes in which anAfrican mill hand whose arm is caught in a machine is disregardedby the boss, or in which hundreds of topless native women gatherlike black Amazons for battle and are treated only as incidentals,are Herzog in extremis.

If Kinski wasn't certifiably mad, he was a better actor than themere eccentric he is often considered to be. There are numerousinstances in film history in which the leading actor was thedirector's vicar (for instance, Jean- Pierre Leaud for Truffaut).But the Kinski-Herzog teaming sometimes seems black magic: wesuspect that Herzog has assumed Kinskian form.

Oddly, for all the fury, there is something touching about CobraVerde. The context for the picture is gone. The New German Cinemaflourished in the 1970s and 1980s when Herzog and Wim Wenders andR.W. Fassbinder and others were flooding us with stimulating newwork (seemingly) month by month. The era, like all such eras,passed: Fassbinder died, the others have faded. Herzog has keptworking, but now, as in Grizzly Man, he seems to be laboring toremind us that he was once a troublemaker. A woeful fate that anold piece of true Herzog now has a scent of lavender.

Denmark has long since earned membership in the World-ClassCinematography Club, and After the Wedding certifies it. Top-rankwork is now so usual in world film that it is almost gross tomention it, like noting that your friend's shoes match. MortenSoborg's camera here is so lucid that it almost seems to beproducing the light that it captures.

A Danish film, yes, but it begins in Bombay, with dialogue inEnglish. Jacob, a Dane of about forty, works in an orphanage thereand is devoted to the children, who return the feeling. Jacob has aspecial paternal link with a boy named Pradom, whom he assuresthat, though he must make a trip to Copenhagen to secure financingfor the orphanage, he will return. So, of course, we know therewill be bumps.

But we could not possibly guess what the bumps will be in this storyby the director, Susanne Bier, and Anders Thomas Jensen. Back inCopenhagen, Jacob is received cordially by the billionaire Jorgen,who will consider making a donation to the orphanage and meanwhileinvites Jacob to his daughter's wedding. At the reception, Jacobdiscovers that Jorgen's wife, Helene, is his lover of twenty yearsago, and that the bride is in fact Jacob's daughter. Jorgen hasbrought the girl up as his own child and has been anticipating thisencounter. To put it as tersely as possible, complications follow.

But there is danger in some plot complications. Up to this point,the picture has been smooth and digestible--like Resnais's film, acomfortably unfolding story. Then comes the paternity surprise.Unlike the Resnais picture, we are left without response. Mostplays and films are about situations and conflicts that we haveshared or can imagine sharing, but it is possible for writers todevise complications that are more clever than relevant. We don'tneed to have a murderous uncle to respond to Hamlet; correspondencesexist within us. But the number of us who attend a wedding and findthat the bride is our previously unknown child is presumablylimited. How can we respond? We watch this film like a puzzle beingunraveled, rather than as a shared experience.

Bier directs with a sense of motion, pleasant without pushing. MadsMikkelsen, who plays Jacob, is an actor who absolutely belongs onthe screen, a gentler sort of Jack Palance.