Private Fears in Public Places – Alain Resnais shows us our naked human heart. (film review)

The man who made Last Year at Marienbad (one of the greatest films of all time – no argument) was eighty-four years old when he made “Coeurs” (“Hearts” is the French Title), an adaptation from Alan Ayckbourn’s play Private Fears in Public Places. The film won several awards, including a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It’s a lovely little unpretentious tale of six Parisians whose lives intersect as they live out the dire loneliness of being human.


The basic plot is as follows (Taken from the Wiki entry of the film):

In contemporary Paris, six characters individually confront their emotional solitude as their lives intertwine. Dan (Lambert Wilson) is unemployed after being sacked from the army and spends his time drinking in a bar and telling his troubles to the longsuffering barman Lionel (Pierre Arditi). Dan’s relationship with Nicole (Laura Morante) is disintegrating and through a newspaper advertisement he meets Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), an attractive but insecure young woman who lives with her older brother Thierry (André Dussollier). Thierry is an estate agent who has been trying to find a new apartment for Nicole and Dan. He works with Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), a middle-aged spinster and an ardent Christian, who lends him a video of an evangelical TV programme to give him inspiration. At the end of the video, Thierry discovers some unerased footage of erotic dancing by a woman he suspects to be Charlotte, and, taking this as an invitation, one day he tries to force her to kiss him in their office. Charlotte in her spare time works as a carer, and is assigned to look after the bed-ridden and foul-mouthed Arthur (the voice of Claude Rich) in the evenings so that his dutiful son, who is Lionel the barman, can go to work. After enduring repeated vicious tantrums from Arthur, Charlotte one evening dons a leather porno outfit and silences him with a striptease performance, before resuming her usual pious demeanour. Arthur is hospitalised next day. Gaëlle witnesses a farewell meeting between Dan and Nicole, and interpreting it as a betrayal by Dan, she flees back home to her brother. Lionel and Nicole both pack up to begin new lives. Dan resumes his place at the bar.


Despite taking on all the ‘advantages’ of cinema (the entire film is a series of about fifty brief scenes) the film is set up as a piece of theater, including shots from above where missing ceilings are revealed and physical partitions are used to stand between multiple characters and the viewer and the characters. Snow is used as a veil and also as a signal to herald the end of a scene, a theatrical trick that can only be used in cinema.  Resnais is making a statement about the similarities between cinema and theater here while asking us to dwell on the differences also. The camera moves around the ‘stages’ in a way the theater viewer never can.  In a way this is to remove the viewer from the theater “feel” that is strongly set up within the film. The viewer therefore has the experience of moving from the immediacy of theater to the passivity of film and back again over and over throughout the film. Resnais is makes a film about human isolation here.  Every character does not get what they hope for, may hope for, seem to long for. Life is cold like snow and we are all partitioned from each other. We all have the lonely human heart, and yet none of us can break through the partitions that separate us.


The primary “difference” between theater and film is the relationship with the moving image and its effect on passivity. Theater is real people moving about in an artificial way in front of us in order to emphasize a point. We are asked to participate as we would with reading a book, looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music. The full effect can’t be achieved without our compliance and active participation. However, with cinema it is the opposite. We are meant to suspend our critical faculties, and allow for the pretense of movement by the witnessing of thousands of still images connected to as to present the illusion of action. When a play is filmed, often it will look something like “Six Degrees of Separation” or “Death and the Maiden“, two films made where the camera sits as if it were a viewer, almost abandoning its role as the maker of a film, and rather takes on the role of witness.  However, in Private Fears in Public Places, Resnais moves repeatedly between cinematic montage and theatrical reality, waking the viewer up to the suspended “truths” imposed by the flaws in each medium. The filmic aspects remind us that rooms have no ceilings and sets are painted in surreal colors in order to signify, while the theatric aspects remind us we cannot slide in a passive receptivity of our witnessing, because these are people acting out a certain role for the benefit of our awareness. Theater is invoked particularly in the bed ridden father of Lionel, a “character” who exists only through the perspective of Charlotte – a theatrical trick. Cinema usually would make the character of Arthur appear, so as to heighten Charlotte’s experience, and expand our sympathy of her situation.


Because of these rotational “tricks” the viewer never recedes into the passivity of the cinema, but they never properly extend into the role of active viewer. We are suspended, like the characters of the film, between our two selves.  Our self as human and our self as we perceive our self to be human. Resnais wants us to notice this, and ultimately this is his message. That we all live with a partition between our self as is and our self as observed by our self. And this carries with it all the pain and truth of the most beautiful cinematic image and the most painful theatrical moment.