Yet another European art film director tries his hand at cerebral Sci-fi. Alain Resnais’ openly experimental movie uses a generic time travel framework to, what else, explore the phenomenon of memory. Suicidal melancholic Claude Rich is projected back exactly one year, for exactly one minute. What could go wrong?
Je t’aime, je t’aime
1968 / Color /1:66 widescreen / 94 min. / Street Date November 10, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot, Anouk Ferjac.
Cinematography Jean Boffety
Film Editors Albert Jurgenson, Colette Leloup
Original Music Krzysztof Penderecki
Written by Jacques Sternberg, Alain Resnais
Produced by Mag Bodard
Directed by Alain Resnais
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
My very first UCLA film class in the Fall of 1970 dispatched us to the Vagabond Theater to see a double bill of two ‘art’ movies that play fast and loose with narrative conventions: Luis Buñuel’s Ensayo de un Crimen and Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime. Had I heard of either director before? I doubt it. Je t’aime, je t’aime sailed right over my head despite being a sci-fi movie about time travel. I don’t remember doing any talking in that class, just listening. Only by reading and learning more about Resnais do I feel able to discuss the picture with a degree of intelligence.
The movie is as simple as many sci-fi pictures where a man undergoes some weird technological process. Some shady scientific investigators have succeeded in sending a mouse back in time one year, for exactly one minute. The mouse has returned safely, and now they want to send a man. They find Claude Ridder (Claude Rich), a failed suicide recovering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Ridder doesn’t care about anything, and without hesitation volunteers to enter the scientists’ ‘Soft Machine.’ Claude rests on a sofa-like cushion inside the Soft Machine’s chamber; a mouse is next to him in a plastic sphere. He first feels a bizarre kind of dislocation, and then commences to re-experience events from his life and romances. They come at him in a fragmented, seemingly random order, with some moments just a second long and other lasting minutes. A few are repeated. Back in 1968, the scientists don’t understand what’s gone wrong — Ridder was expected to return after one minute, but he’s stuck in some kind of continuous cycle of time.
Je t’aime, je t’aime seems very familiar. Claude undergoes much the same ordeal as does Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, becoming “unstuck in time.” But his time tripping adventures don’t add up to an ironic fable about human grief and the absurdity of existence. Like most of the Alain Resnais filmography, it’s a cinematic exercise about the nature of memory, in this case memory glitches. To many viewers the movie will play like un-collated scenes thrown into a shredder and assembled in random order. Indeed, we struggle to make causal or associative connections in the story of Claude Ridder, although we do perceive the central mystery explaining why he became suicidal: he thinks he may have caused the death of his girlfriend.
The snippets of time that we see aren’t really random, of course. Claude meets Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot) and hires her even though she isn’t interested in working. In other scenes his friends remark on his lack of ambition for life or his job in a publishing house. Ridder likes to listen to Thelonius Monk records. He spends time with other women as well, and it’s not easy to establish a time order or even who is who, exactly. Claude eventually breaks with Catrine but then follows her to Glasgow, Scotland, which he calls the dreariest place on Earth. (sorry David Cairns; perhaps this is a French revenge on the Scots for rejecting Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face?) That’s where Claude finds himself wondering to what degree he caused her death.
Claude Rich is quite good, especially under these extreme circumstances. His Claude Ridder has a clever sense of humor despite being mildy melancholy. He compares himself to his fellow time-traveler, the mouse. At one point a mouse shows up out of nowhere on a beach. Is it ‘his’ mouse? Viewers more familiar with French movies may find additional meaning in the casting of the smaller roles, but I just noticed Jean Martin of The Battle of Algiers and Bernard Fresson, the unlucky German soldier in Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour. Ridder’s lovers are all beautiful but not memorably written or played — they’re all perceived only as Claude sees them. Olga Georges-Picot especially seems remote and unengaged, keeping our involvement in the failed romantic aspect to a minimum. Or is she simply trying to project independence?
French science fiction films are few and far between, with Chris Marker’s La Jetée another similar memory puzzle. Claude Benayoun’s Paris n’existe pas is reportedly much like this show, except that the main character perceives glimpses of the past and the future without physical travel. Why make this a science fiction movie at all? It’s not like Ridder experiences adventures like H.G. Wells’ Time Traveler, so why not just have him simply ‘think’ his way into the past? The sci-fi trappings are little more than a superficial genre platform to stage the shower of memory fragments, which are very similar to the memory puzzle of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. In Je t’aime, je t’aime Claude seems to be re-experiencing memories, not visiting them; it’s not like there are two of him back in the past. When he emerges from the water on a swimming holiday in the South of France, the action is repeated numerous times, and each time it’s a bit different. One striking shot gives Claude double images of Catrine. Are these meant to suggest something akin to Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths? Could Claude change what happens if he wanted to? Claude does manage to do one thing differently in the past, and to ‘change history.’ To what degree is he a proto- Marty McFly?
From the outside the Soft Machine looks like a big dough-balloon in the shape of a brain, or a lumpy white onion. Inside it’s like an upholstered womb. There are no camera effects beyond jump cuts. The ‘jumps in time’ are ordinary film cuts as well. Only a couple of images have surreal content. In one a man in a phone booth is revealed to be underwater, for no apparent reason. Critics have pointed out that Claude remains screen center at all times. I’m not sure that that adds much. Only some of my dreams play like movies, but most of my memories do. I even see my face in my own memories, which means that my mind is adding a level of interpretation.
The repetition of memories starts us thinking that those must be more important moments, but the one at the seaside doesn’t have any special significance. Even the title is a repeat, of course. The movie plays games with fractured continuity, to express the workings of human memory, which indeed skips around from thought to thought. But we don’t get the impression of any kind of time travel occuring. Remember that H.G. Wells may have been inspired to write his original book by thinking about newly-invented motion picture film running through a projector. With physical film, ‘time’ is an unbroken linear sequence of images. They can go forward, backward and stand still. The future can be reached more quickly if we speed up the projector. By their nature, motion pictures are well suited to depict conventional time travel stories.
A Time Travel film before Alain Resnais’ that goes further is IB Melchoir’s The Time Travelers, which concludes in an accelerating cyclical whirlpool called a time paradox. Claude is experiencing a memory whirlpool. We suspect that an emotional factor is keeping him from returning after his allotted one minute in the past. Like a restless spirit from the beyond in a film blanc, who must resolve his drama to be free, Claude must first work out his destiny.
One of the joke memories Claude experiences is a casual theory from Catrine. Maybe cats are God, and mankind has developed to its present state to give the cats of the world somebody to take care of their needs. That sounds a bit like Kurt Vonnegut as well: a big revelation in Sirens of Titan is that all of human evolution has occurred so that a passing spaceship will be able to pick up a needed spare part. Beyond that Resnais’ movie might be considered nothing more cosmic than a rumination about failed relationships. Indeed, trying to reassemble the memory-truth of a relationship, particularly if the other person is dead, is a frustrating task.
Resnais made movies with similar cinematic-memory textures, even though they were all written by different authors. In this case the writer is Jacques Sternberg, a Belgian with experience in science fiction stories. We’re told that Sternberg wrote hundreds of pages of ‘incidental’ scenes to be Claude’s memory-past, and Resnais had to choose which to film. The order was determined by rearranging cards on a table, and not altered much after assembly. Je t’aime, je t’aime is an intellectual puzzle and not a developed romantic story. It also generates little in the way of conventional suspense. Yet I still prefer it to the labored, overdone Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That show left me at a total loss — two hours of silly inventions, trendy effects and cosmic complications, and it all boiled down to the simple notion that lovers need to be nicer to each other. No hay que complicar el amor.
In addition to the bits of jazz music, eerie Krzysztof Pendericki choral music is used, not in the time travel scenes but in the framing story. This at last is a conventional filmic crutch — it provides a firm clue that all the prosaic scenes are leading to a fantastic destiny.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of Je t’aime, je t’aime is a fine transfer of a pristine film element. It’s the full 94-minute cut. The colors run to the cold and greenish in early scenes; all I can say that I remember my 1970 screening as having rather weird colors as well. The colors we see are probably accurate.
The extras are more than thorough. Alain Resnais talks about the production in an audio interview that’s maybe fifteen minutes long. In a filmed interview piece, actor Claude Rich has very positive memories of the experience. He remembers his disappointment when the Cannes film festival was cancelled for the May Strikes, just before his screening was supposed to take place. Another extra is a featurette with author Jacques Sternberg, talking about the production. A rather long original trailer is present, and an insert slip contains a helpful essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Je t’aime, je t’aime Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Audio interview with director Resnais, liner note essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, interview with Claude Rich, featurette docu The Meeting of Alain Resnais and Jacques Sternberg, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 27, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson