Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week: A new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull has us thinking back on stellar movies made from stage plays.
The French director Alain Resnais, whose early films were milestones of modernism and narrative form (Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year At Marienbad being only the most famous examples), devoted much of the last part of his career to adaptations of mostly minor plays, often to the bafflement of critics—abandoning the deft, editing-centric interpretations of perspective and time that made his name for him in favor of a highly eccentric staginess. But Resnais’ art was always one of plastic pleasures, and even its most cerebral experiments drew eclectic inspiration from his early love of comics, genre fiction, theater, musicals, and movie glamour. Both the head games of Marienbad and the stage-bound parings of characters in Private Fears In Public Places, his much later adaptation of a play by West End hit-maker Alan Ayckbourn, are couched in the quoted magic and dreaminess of Hollywood’s golden age. The irony is that, because the innovative techniques of Resnais’ 1950s and ’60s output have long since become mainstream, something like Private Fears In Public Places is now more likely to mystify arthouse audiences.
Like so much of Resnais’ work, Private Fears draws on influences that should be contradictory, its more than 50 vignette-like scenes framed through an endless Zhivago-esque snowfall and a fog of old-fashioned net diffusion. (The “net,” a cinematographer’s term of art, is really just pantyhose stretched over the front or back of the lens.) Stranger and more esoteric is the reported influence of The X-Files—one of Resnais’ more endearing later passions—on the film, complete with a score by series composer Mark Snow, who would go on to write the music for all of the director’s subsequent movies. That Ayckbourn’s play about six lonely Londoners (Parisians in the film) could be directed on a small, sparse stage with blackouts is obvious even from the adaptation, which makes no attempt to shed the structural staginess of its source material.
But if Resnais, who died in 2014, had a career-long theme, it was the imagination, whether it was the workings of a character’s head (as visualized in Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Guerre Est Finie, or his under-appreciated English-language debut, Providence) or the way his own fascinations could creatively interact. In this nuanced drama of intersecting lives, he treats the dreamlike backdrops of classic film—the artificial snow, the romantic lighting, the over-sized sets—as something akin to a black-box theater, a space that can ask the audience to imagine anything.
Availability: Private Fears In Public Places is available for streaming on Hulu. The DVD can be obtained through Amazon or possibly your local video store/library.