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Now on DVD: "Mélo" (Resnais, France, 1986)

David Phelps
With Mélo, Alain Resnais returns to his old favorite theme—the irreconcilability of subjective and objective experience, the one mired in the past and the other relics of it—from the outside. Which makes it no different than any of the other films he’s made since the ’60s. Like Luis Buñuel, and in particular, like Buñuel’s main heir, Manoel de Oliveira, Resnais’s career trajectory seems to have been to quickly abandon evocations of a subjective consciousness in favor of a blatantly theatrical, questionably objective style that dryly notes the precise behavior of delusional people acting only on the logic of their own emotions, which isn’t very logical at all. But only for Resnais has the move been frequently disastrous, with his hypocrites way too systematically hypocritical, and with his occasional attempts to sympathize with these idiots via cute camera tricks and sound effects coming off as feeble nods to avant-garde roots by a man who is himself mired in outdated Vaudeville gimmickry. In Muriel, for example, the extreme fragmentations work to make the scenes seem like more memories in a film haunted by them; by L’amour à mort, the somewhat arbitrary fragmentations work to acknowledge that there is more to the characters’ lives than Woody Allen talk of God and the meaninglessness of existence, but that the film isn’t particularly interested in it.
Mélo, though, is another story, while nearly the same one. Like L’amour à mort, its predecessor, Mélo is about two people who have loved a third: a pianist ( André Dussollier) falls in love with the wife (Sabine Azéma) of an old friend (Pierre Arditi), as he tries to resist her seductions, she perhaps tries to resist his, or feigns trying to resist his, and the husband falls ill under possibly mysterious circumstances, or, possibly not. Years go by in single cuts, and nobody seems to know what they're doing, or think they're doing, least of all the audience. And as in L'amour à mort, these lovers need deathly means to prove that their love lives on; their love can only be conveyed in the most absolute, morbid terms. Because what’s important in both films, and Mélo in particular, isn’t the love itself but the inability to express it.
This is, again, an old favorite Resnais theme, but whereas in something like Last Year at Marienbad we see all the scenes, remembered and imagined, which a man fails to adequately express and convey to a woman, in Mélo, we see all the real-life scenes in which the characters fail to crystallize their desires, the calm and comforting and banal reality that they hardly seem to see themselves, the reality that they're trying to ignore, on which they're trying to enact their starry-eyed delusions. Resnais' theatrical gestures, gorgeous artificial lighting, and trance-like rhythms (with his long, lingering camera movement) move beyond any realistic objectivity to suggest a world that has hermetically sealed and concealed these people from everyday concerns, but the difference between Marienbad and Mélo is still something like the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. In his book on Resnais, Roy Armes points out the advantage film affords Alain Robbe-Grillet’s theories that consciousness occurs entirely in the present tense (to paraphrase Armes paraphrasing a dubious-sounding Robbe-Grillet): whereas language has tenses to separate times, film does not; moments from past, present, and future can all collide as present, and quite deliberately unaccounted for. The result, then, for Resnais’ ’60s films (and Marienbad in particular), is films mirroring, or, better yet, illustrating various consciousnesses (though part of Marienbad’s power is certainly the ambiguity whether these images are being called or recalled to mind).
But it’s tempting to make a more typical distinction: whereas language might be able to describe a feeling (and I’m not sure anyone thinks it really can), the best that a movie or play can do, excepting voice-over, is to demonstrate the profundity of the feeling by demonstrating its practical effects: an entire society thrown into chaos in Romeo and Juliet, a reckless car ride in Les dames du bois de boulogne or The Bad and the Beautiful. This is simply the usual problem that books can show us characters’ thoughts while storylines, watching only characters' exteriors, can only show evidence of their thinking, but Mélo, taken from a play by Henry Bernstein,is about this very failure. It’s about rich, dull people in rich, dull houses in the ’20s trying, as in Marienbad, to offer evidence of their most torrid emotions, without any adequate means of expression. As in L’amour à mort, there is no society to defy, and the only means to risk one’s life in the name of love is suicide. There is a marriage to break, but the fact that it isn’t fully broken suggests even the characters aren’t sure what they’re doing. Otherwise, there is dancing, music, and somersaults—these are the best signifiers they’ve got.
Yet what’s so stunning about Mélo is that it withholds all evidence itself; everything is referred to and mediated, signified in helplessly inadequate terms. A devastating story is told as a monologue (in a virtuosic single shot, recalling one of the New Wave’s favorite Hitchcock films, Under Capricorn), a letter is read aloud, musicians seduce each other by playing together, shots may be seen in reflection, and every key event occurs off-screen, and is only referred to in conversation later. Whereas L’amour à mort depends on its musical interludes to suggest a sense of off-screen time, Mélo is inherently a reaction film, like a Manet painting or a monster movie that makes us imagine the subject of the characters’ gazes, a film about people unsure how to cope with unexpected developments. The spirit of the technique is as much Ophülsian Doom as it is Greek Tragedy, with the real tragedies always happening off-stage, as if the only real agency the characters can exert is over their responses to the inevitable feelings and events. And in all these ways—as well as its storyline, its droll tone, and even certain compositions (see above)—it’s also a companion to Oliveira’s even more extraordinary Francisca, from a few years before. Dave Kehr’s words on that movie could nearly apply here: “The baroque plot is presented in a series of single-take tableaux, which do not attempt to embody the drama as much as allude to it, leaving the dense and passionate feelings to take shape entirely in the spectator's mind. Oliveira limits himself to showing only what can truly be shown: not the story but a representation of the story.”
So what we have is a movie in which the characters are limited to their expressions and are unable to express themselves. And, as the last scene suggests, perhaps expressing themselves quite falsely, quite deliberately. Were these people in love or bored; did they know which; are they trying to convince each other or themselves of a love which leaves no traces—these are the massive uncertainties raised in a film that, unlike Marienbad, shows us quite certainly what has gone on. And yet the conclusion seems to pose some sort of answer to their problems. Whether or not anyone was in love, whether or not two old friends hate each other—they play Brahms, and whether their feelings are long gone or never existed stops mattering, as the expression is almost certainly more remarkable than anything particular or definable it might be supposed to express.
Mélo is available on R1 DVD from KimStim.
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