Alain Renais has been making films for half a century, gaining fame from such immortal masterpieces as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). For an established grand master, he's not terribly prolific, having made only a half dozen films in the last 20 years, so the arrival of any new work should be a banner day for cineastes.
Knowing this, I feel like a philistine reporting that Private Fears is a flimsy bit of Gallic melancholy that fails to enchant despite the impressive talent involved. A handsomely made, hopelessly wistful romantic roundelay about six lovelorn characters in snowbound Paris who circle each other in elliptical orbits of unhappiness, it's the sort of alleged comedy piece that's more admirable than enjoyable.
The staging, design and performances are impeccable, but the anticipated emotional finish is missing, and while impossibly lovely to look at, the center is as cold and lifeless as a Roman marble bust. The trouble might be that in adapting a stage play by Alan Ayckbourn, screen writer Jean Michel Ribes has made something very British into something so very, very French. Instead of just painfully shy romantic neurotics; we get painfully gloomy romantic neurotics who seem only mildly embarrassed by their operatic displays of depression. The excessive moodiness may try the patience of even the most ardent Francophile, as these lonely folks make the city of lights seem like a dimly candlelit village.
Leading the mope brigade is lonesome realtor Thierry (André Dussollier), who is deeply ashamed at his arousal when fragile co-worker Charlotte (Sabine Azéma) gives him a tape of a religious program spiced up with hidden snippets of homemade porn. Meanwhile, Thierry is showing a series of apartments to sour-faced Nicole (Laura Morante), whose sulking, estranged boyfriend Dan (Lambert Wilson), has arranged a blind date with Thierry's pretty and much younger sister Gaelle (Isabelle Carré). Having lost his military commission, Dan spends his afternoons in a swank hotel chatting up Lionel (Pierre Arditi), who has hired a moonlighting Charlotte to care for his elderly, miserably cranky father ... and so on.
Everyone keeps brushing up against each other in such random, unexpected ways; I kept waiting for the snowflakes to be replaced by a deluge of frogs. The intensely artificial structure wouldn't be so noticeable if there was a sense that any of this was going somewhere useful. All the morose hand-wringing doesn't amount to much, and any splashes of joy are fleeting. Maybe that's the point, but it's not an incredibly novel idea, nor is it the sort of hard-earned wisdom one expects from a vet filmmaker. At the tender age of 84, Renais has earned the right to waffle about if he wishes, sure, but his obvious skill makes every wasted moment an eternity.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 12; 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 14, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 15. Call 313-833-3237.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.