Resnais Explores Fear and Memory in Je t’aime je t’aime

In slow, hypnotic ellipses, director Alain Resnais draws out the moribund inner world of a suicidal man haunted by a series of disturbing memories.

Unsettling, moody and bizarre, Alain Resnais explores the troubling constituents of memory in his 1968 sci-fi drama Je t’aime je t’aime. Using the narrative device of repetition (his preferred stylistic mechanism in cinema), Resnais creates a story at once confusing and absorbing, fusing together the elements of sci-fi, romance and drama to present a non-liner tale of a man’s all-consuming depression.

Like most Resnais films, Je t’aime je t’aime aims for such heady and philosophical exploits like retrospective memory, relived experience and temporal movements. In slow, hypnotic ellipses, Resnais draws out the moribund inner world of a suicidal man haunted by a series of disturbing memories.

Claude (Claude Rich) is a white collar business man who, after a breakdown following a dissolved relationship, attempts suicide. When the attempt fails, he is hospitalized for his injuries (he has shot himself) as well as psychological analysis. Upon leaving, Claude is propositioned by a few scientists who offer him a chance to partake in a particularly risky experiment that deals with time travel. Uncertain but curious, Claude agrees and is whisked off to a secreted building in the countryside, which houses an impressive contraption designed to transport people into the past.

Claude is told that upon entering the time machine (which resembles a postmodern beanbag), he will travel back to his past for one minute to experience a certain moment in his life. Things don’t work according to plan, however, and Claude begins reliving an entire series of past memories in non-linear fashion. Pretty soon, he is inundated with a confluence of emotions which overwhelm him to the point of extreme anxiety. Claude desperately wants to stop the experiment and just forget the past altogether. His memories, it turns out, are not only unpleasant but deadly, too.

Resnais explores the ways in which outside forces seek to disturb and destroy the inner sanctums of the mind. In Je t’aime je t’aime, the idea of memories being realized as lethal imprisonments is demonstrated in the film’s thesis on the emotional life lived through temporal means. Resnais seeks to challenge our ideas on how we feel (as opposed to why we feel) through a series of vignettes that are arranged in ways that work to subvert logic both counterintuitive and collinear. In the successive emotional upsets, we learn of Claude’s deep insecurities with women, with the working world and ultimately with himself.

It isn’t too difficult to see that Je t’aime je t’aime is a sublimated attack on the alpha male. Using an ingenious arrangement of paroxysmal edits, Resnais’ film tells a full story in which beginnings and endings are upended in the name of emotional proximity; how a story moves in accordance to detail isn’t necessarily analogous to the resultant emotions of those details.

It is discovered that Claude’s issues with his live-in girlfriend Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot) may be the result of his situational anxiety disorder and not her possible cheating. Similarly, his obsession with his girlfriend once she has left him seems to manifest in a series of other relationships with women who are far more emotionally centered than Catrine; rather than stabilize Claude’s near catatonic behaviour, these relationships seem to cause further damage.

Claude’s life appears to add up to a series of open-ended questions. Traveling back in time and returning to the point of contention seems to retrieve no answers. What Claude, and the audience, is left with, is the all-pervasive sense that our realities are simply the product of manifested fears born into the external surroundings. Since this hypothesis would suggest that states of reality are nothing but the inventions of internalized emotions, Claude is faced with the possibility that such manifestations can be cordoned by eliminating the emotions responsible; a possibility that could result in death.

Kino Lorber offers a fantastic transfer that captures all of the muted colours beautifully. Images are rendered sharp and clear and there is a healthy amount of grain visible in the print. It feels at once lively, rich and worn and the world of the ’60s is reproduced with clear definition. Most impressive is the soundtrack. A truly eerie and bewitching experience, Krzysztof Penderecki’s score opens the film on an unsettling and emotionally-invasive note; it cuts right through the nerves and precipitates the feelings of dread long before the horrific experiment in the film is revealed. Sound and dialogue come through beautifully. The film is in French with English subtitles.

The disc is packed with extras and they are all informative and thought-provoking. These include an essay booklet, one interview with director Resnais as well as one with its leading star Rich, and a small feature called “The Meeting of Alain Resnais and Jacques Sternberg”, which consists of archived footage of Sternberg who wrote the film. Rounding out the supplements is a trailer.

This is heady stuff and sure to infuriate those who demand simple chronology in a story. The only way to get through this film (or any film by Resnais, for that matter) and leave satisfied, is to simply steep yourself in it completely. There is most likely the temptation to try and piece scenes together as though the film were a puzzle; but even puzzles are assigned some coordination and this isn’t a narrative that deals in chronology. Rather, the story performs formidably when it’s viewed at a removed distance, when the viewer consciously receives the information from a point of equity.

A certain amount of personal projection is required here; what is happening to Claude onscreen in his emotional recalls isn’t any different than what we experience in our day to day lives. Our lives, Resnais argues, are a series of recollections played back on a moving scrim and in no particular fashion, linear or otherwise, do they converge until they become the only reality we believe to exist. Resnais’ film is about the overwhelming power of subjectivity; both the pleasures and dangers of it.

RATING 9 / 10