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Rep Diary: Je t’aime, je t’aime

By David Gregory Lawson on February 19, 2014

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“For flowers do not age honestly like leaves, which lose nothing of their beauty after they have died; flowers wither like old and overly made-up dowagers, and they die ridiculously on stems that seemed to carry them to the clouds. It is impossible to exaggerate the tragicomic oppositions indicated in the course of this death-drama, endlessly played out between earth and sky, and it is evident that one can only paraphrase this laughable duel by introducing, not as a sentence, but more precisely as an ink stain, this nauseating banality: love smells like death.”

—Georges Bataille, The Language of Flowers (1929)

Je T'aime, je t'aime

Alain Resnais’s psychologically bruising film maudit is a sci-fi romance that charts a long-term relationship’s evolution from an atypically sullen meet-cute to the bitter resentment only the profound understanding of another human being can breed. It’s also an empathetic, if cool, portrait of the solipsistic tendencies and dithering that a depressive mindset allows for, and the ways two similarly afflicted people accommodate and temporarily alleviate each other’s pain.

After a suicide attempt following the end of his seven-year relationship with live-in girlfriend Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) is recruited by scientists from the Crespel Research Center to participate in their first time-travel experiment using a human subject. Claude is supposed to be sent back exactly one year into his past for exactly one minute, but the procedure goes haywire and he gets stuck in an endless loop from which only death can free him.

Resnais has been a lifelong enthusiast of the fantastic and macabre (and would collaborate on two unrealized projects with Stan Lee). In Je t’aime, je t’aime he and  screenwriter Jacques Sternberg, a well-regarded science-fiction novelist, use time travel as a device for exploring the obstacles life poses to receiving or displaying affection and for probing the pleasures of solitude (even, or especially, in the company of a lover, with all the tension it creates). Scenes end or begin right as a lull in the conversation threatens to become a quarrel; sometimes, in a typically mysterious and elastic use of time, a scene will depict a mere few seconds at the tail end of a fight. In one such moment, Claude’s hand lingers on Catrine’s arm, and they both stare straight ahead, exhausted, with their backs to the wall. The astringent performances and Resnais’s deep-focus two-shots are infused with the depth of the characters’ emotional fragility, so that we feel as though the entirety of their argument has played out before our eyes.

Je t'aime, je t'aime

Resnais’s interest lies in how this steady drip of quotidian moments can be individually parsed and how the steadiness endows the material with dimension and weight. The narrative hard-cuts abruptly from one scene to the next, jumping days, months, even years, doubling back again and again to certain events. Resnais finds visual and tactile correlations with the couple’s abrupt emotional shifts, with their insomnia, boredom, spite, the sensation of their warm bodies together in bed. (“Visual and tactile” are two words we even hear spoken by Claude as he reads in his office while the lights are switched off around him.) Claude, for his part, can’t effect any change in the events as they unfold, or else is too numb and disgusted with himself to maintain the willpower necessary to bring about that change. His constitution, pre- and post–suicide attempt, is best suited to daydreams and neuroses-induced petulance, while the time travel amounts to a kind of eternal return.

The time-travel machine itself is organic: a potato-colored and tumor-shaped structure, the interior made of a thin, skin-like canvas and outfitted with a chair that fits snugly to Claude’s form, a comfortable launching pad from which he is sent into a turbulent past. The notion of an inanimate object that appears sentient and offers an entry point to the past has its thematic precedent in Resnais’s short documentary Toute la mémoire du monde (56), which depicts the Bibliothèque nationale de France as a space for adventure amid dark shadows and lurking figures, a complex hive mind composed of knowledge and history, with an indexing system, overseen by marble statues and busts, that appears to organize itself intuitively.

Resnais’s work generally evinces a sensitivity both to contemporary modes of alienation and to the beauty of industrial processes that might otherwise be seen as merely ugly or disastrous. His documentary on plastics manufacturing, Le Chant de Styrène (58, written by Raymond Queneau), features bright colors, geometrically precise CinemaScope compositions, and technology money-shots. Yet Je t’aime, Je t’aime eschews this kind of celebration of the modern, and the more traditional sci-fi trappings are all but absent here. The absolute focus on Claude and Catrine’s relationship instead underlines the subjectivity of historical time, suggesting that it is perhaps impossible to understand as it is being lived. While this may not seem an overtly controversial stance, it certainly didn’t do the film any favors when it was released in 1968.

Je t'aime, je t'aime

Rich and Georges-Picot make a handsome couple, and they begin to wear each other’s features, sharing mannerisms and facial expressions. Both actors look pensive, trapped under harsh lighting, their fine jawlines and cheekbones made severe, even animalistic. Their default look, however, is one of pleased indifference. When they bicker, tease, or moon over each other, the anger, playfulness, or joy is overt, with a purity of expression that gives both actors a childlike quality, which in turn makes even familiar relationship milestones register with the power of a first encounter. In a movie with numerous motifs juxtaposing the cosmic with the mundane, it’s the rhythm that Rich and Georges-Picot find with one another that becomes most moving. Their jabs at each other’s weaknesses and the quiet moments when they both stare into the middle distance create a separate, untouchable space outside of time, and perhaps even memory.

As with the protagonists of Last Year at Marienbad, Mon oncle d’Amérique, and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, the journey through Claude’s life and interiority, past and present, also supplies a metaphor for cinema as being more than the sum of celluloid, projectors, and a screen. It’s a medium that re-frames and gives new shape to the trauma and complexity of being alive, allowing us to re-conceptualize where we’ve been and what we’ve done there. The time-travel premise evokes the habit of replaying one’s personal failures, the need to supply some sort of narrative to heartache and true love alike. But it is still impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when Claude and Catrine began to drift apart, where the resentment sprouted from, and just as impossible, time travel be damned, to nail down that moment and examine it: as with scanning back and forth through the same few seconds of film, you can only find that moment in stillness, in retrospect.

Claude is buffeted on this sea of time so convulsively that some scenes last for only a single line of dialogue or a glance. Watching him sit in a waiting room reading a magazine, leave his apartment to buy cigarettes, or play with a kitten on his bed, viewers are granted space to scrutinize and re-scrutinize this map of a relationship—and construct their own individual “Choose Your Own Adventures” of interrelated personal memories, to explore that collection of sensations provoked by being with another person who can propel you forward and give you a sense of purpose and belonging.

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