Private Fears In Public Places (Cœurs) (2006)

Private Fears In Public Places (Cœurs) first published by Film4

Synopsis: In this cold-hearted comedy, loneliness sets up its winter camp in the city of love. Master auteur Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year In Marienbad) directs, in his second Alain Ayckbourn adaptation since Smoking/No Smoking.

Review: Paris – the city of light, the city of love, the city of life. Set a film there, and it is obligatory to include an establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower, looming benignly over all the sophisticated romance below. And sure enough, it is with just such an image that Private Fears in Public Places (Cœurs) opens – except that most of the familiar monument, and all of the city, is shrouded in mist and snow.

There is snow everywhere in Alain Resnais’ feature. Beautiful images of falling flakes periodically appear as interstices between one scene and the next, you can constantly see it fluttering down through windows in the background, you even, in one hauntingly surreal sequence, see it falling inside an apartment – but most of all, it blankets the hearts of the film’s characters, as they settle in for a long, cold winter of loneliness and despair. Forget the Paris we are used to seeing in cinema – for here that most passionate of metropolises has been stripped entirely of its usual warmth.

Estate agent Thierry (André Dussollier) is helping Nicole (Laura Morante) find the right apartment, but it is not easy. Her feckless fiancé Dan (Lambert Wilson), who has just been dishonourably discharged from the military, wants an additional room to serve as his private study, while Nicole herself would prefer the extra room for a baby. Back at the office, Thierry’s secretary Charlotte (Sabine Azéma) lends him a videotape of her favourite Sunday religious programme. Thierry is not at all interested in God, but as he is most certainly interested in Charlotte, he grudgingly watches the show at home – only to discover, at its end, a rather unexpected piece of footage. Meanwhile, Charlotte is moonlighting as saintly carer for the terminally ill, interminably rude Arthur (Claude Rich), while his once estranged son Lionel (Pierre Arditi) tends bar at a hotel – where Thierry’s younger sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré) will end up on the date of her life with Dan, who has just separated from Nicole. Happiness, however, has a way of eluding even those who are willing to make a break from the past.

After the two-handed double-feature Smoking/No Smoking (1993), Private Fears in Public Places is Resnais’ second film based on the drama of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn – but where the former painstakingly adhered to its original English setting and characters, this new film has been transposed (by its adaptor, French playwright Jean-Michel Ribes) to Paris and to an all-French ensemble. It works – for while Ayckbourn’s play may have been a black comedy about the peculiar anxieties haunting the English middle classes, in Resnais’ hands it turns out that solitude, mortality yearning and loss are afflictions of a more universal nature, readily transcending national boundaries without losing any of their dramatic impact.

Private Fears in Public Places is indeed a comedy, full of inopportune entrances, foolish misunderstandings and surprise revelations, and at times it is riotously funny – but it is also the kind of comedy that will leave you shivering, as everyone is confronted by “the Darkness with a capital D”. What starts as a slight farce ends in the far weightier terrains of tragedy, as Resnais transforms his flawed but painfully recognisable characters into existential anti-heroes facing the iciest of human conditions.

The film’s fifty or so scenes might all be intimately connected as the lives of these characters echo and even intersect each other, but Resnais is far more interested in the divisions that set us apart – whether it is the ill-constructed inner wall that bisects the first apartment visited by Nicole, the curtain that splits Lionel’s bar in two, the partition that separates Thierry’s office from Charlotte’s, or the thematic oppositions of heaven and hell, men and women, piety and temptation.

In keeping with its dramatic origins, most of the film’s action is confined to indoor locations, but Eric Gautier’s sweeping camerawork gives everything a cinematic quality, not to mention an exquisitely stylised aesthetic. It is a pure joy to watch, with performances all the more generous for being so unflattering – and it will make you smile, even if by the end that smile will be frozen on your face. 

Verdict: Spring surely follows winter, but there is no sign of a coming thaw in this bleakly melancholic comedy of manners and mortality.

© Anton Bitel