Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Alain Resnais | Pas sur la bouche (Not on the Lips)
by Douglas Messerli
André Barde (libretto), Maurice Yvain (original score, with additional music by Bruno Fontaine), Alain Resnais Pas sur la bouche (Not on the Lips) / 2003
It is tempting—and many critics had done so—to become dismayed over the fact that experimental Alain Resnais chose in 2003 to film a 1925 French musical, keeping it pretty much faithful to the original. Not only does the film seem odd coming from such a grand experimenter, but the work itself contains basically silly patter lyrics (generally rhymed in the English subtitles), and the music (the original score by Maurice Yvain) is seldom very interesting.
André Barde’s original libretto seems like a lightweight Feydeau farce, yet having little of the frothiness of the boulevard comic author. Like any wealthy Parisian socialite, Gilberte Valandray (Sabine Azéma) loves her business husband, while flirting with several admirers, including the older and rather foolish Faradel (Daniel Prévost) and the young Dada-Cubist-Surrealist artist Charley (Jalil Lespert). Her husband Georges (Pierre Arditi), knowing of his wife’s flirtatious nature, is unworried about the consequences since he is under the strange notion that it is always the first sexual partner that defines a woman, convinced obviously that he is wife’s first lover.
Meanwhile Gilberte has kept an important secret from him, that she has been briefly married to an American, Eric Thomson (Lambert Wilson), a relationship that was quickly invalidated (although we never quite discover why). The only one who knows of her relationship, other than Thomson, is her unmarried sister, Arlette (Isabelle Nanty). But on this particular day, when in her self-centeredness Gilberte has missed her own tea-time affair, she is met with the news that she and her husband will be dining that evening with Georges’ new American business partner—who turns out to be Eric Thomson!
Obviously, sparks fly, particularly when Gilberte’s friend Huguette (Audrey Tautou) also admits that she has fallen in love with Charley, and wants her help in catching him.
It hardly matters what happens in the rest of this predictable contrivance: characters flirt, hide their true feelings, and all wind up in Faradel’s bachelor flat, where in one room Charley is being seduced by Huguette, while in others the rest of the cast rushes to join them, believing that one other is involved with someone they shouldn’t be, resulting in comic confusion but a loving resolution.
What I think one has to recall in this quite beautifully filmed musical is Resnais’ life-long interest in the past. In some respects, nearly all of Resnais’ characters—even in his most disjunctive works—with the consequences of their past lives and their lovers from ages previous. So the theme, one quickly comprehends, is a natural one for the great filmmaker.
Here, moreover, while exploring these themes with some postmodern perspective, he treats the genre seriously, which, of course, only makes it appear more ridiculous than if he’s filled it with knowing nods and winks. As in theater, Resnais has chosen singers who can also act, let his designers create the most elegant sets and costumes possible, encouraging, as well, his characters to speak directly to the camera.
The outsized American, moreover, is such a blustering individual who heavily tromps through the French language, and refuses, it turns out—perhaps the reason for his invalidated first marriage—to kiss any woman on the lips, making it a kind splendid satire of French-American differences. In this case, Gilberte’s sister, Arlette, saves the day, by insisting that it was she who was once married to Thomson, and to prove it, kisses him, for the first time, on the lips. Not only does it silence him, but obviously convinces him that the French women are better in getting what they want.
Let us just note that this work was quite popular in France, while attacked as mindless froth in England. It had no distribution in the US.
Los Angeles, August 2, 2016