Alain Resnais was going strong when he passed away on the first of March. Not long before, at the age of 91, he released a new movie. The great director’s filmography is ripe with fascinating and original work, from his groundbreaking poetic document of Auschwitz Night and Fog to his studies in romance and remembrance, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. Frequently slighted as a maker of incomprehensible art pictures, Resnais is anything but — Marienbad is an exacting study of the nature of memory that takes a cinematically unique and wholly appropriate form.
Much more conventionally accessible is one of Resnais’ best middle-career efforts, 1977′s Providence. A superb cast takes part in a Borges-like narrative spun from the imagination of a bitter author in failing health. Expressing a thought process that allows whatever creative associations come to mind, the movie seems to send out connection-feelers in all directions. The screenplay by David Mercer (Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment) functions like the thought process of a writer at work. And what at first might seem a cynical exercise eventually becomes an emotionally positive statement about universal anxieties.
Alain Resnais filmed his picture in English, with an anglophone cast. Although a modest hit in the United States (many pictures of its year were overshadowed by the very different Star Wars), Providence has not yet seen a worthy video release. Columbia Home Video gave it a nice release on VHS and Beta back in the very early days of home video and Tartan Video had a limited window in the UK for a while. This new disc from the French video company Jupiter Films is a PAL DVD limited to Region 2 exhibition.
Refusing to check into a clinic, famous author Clive Langham (John Gielgud) remains in his large country estate called Providence. At night he drinks heavily to distract himself from severe pains in his lower abdomen, while inventing characters and dramatic situations in his head. He uses the members of his own family, casting them and re-casting them in different roles and with extreme, invented personalities. He sees his son Claude (Dirk Bogarde) as an offensively pompous and hyper-rational attorney, as he prosecutes Kevin Woodford, a longhaired nonconformist. Imagined in the form of Clive’s other son Kevin (David Warner), Woodford’s murder defense is that the man he killed was a werewolf begging for a merciful death. Moved by Woodford’s sincerity, Clive’s bitter wife Sonia (Ellen Burstyn) invites the newly exonerated defendant home, and teases Clive with the notion that she might take him as her lover. Reeling in pain and cursing his poor health, Clive reveals himself to be a festering knot of resentments and regrets. Unsatisfied with his ‘fictional’ characters, he reconfigures them into a pattern closer to his ‘real’ family. Helen Weiner (Elaine Stritch) is first seen as Claude’s long-time extramarital lover, who happens to strongly resemble Clive’s dead, lamented wife, who committed suicide. But later she switches identities to simply be Mrs. Langham. Clive decides that Kevin Woodford should actually be Kevin Langham, Claude’s brother. That leaves ‘Woodford’s’ brother Dave (Denis Lawson), a famous footballer, without a fixed role to play, although he still wanders in and out of scenes. Clive maintains a heightened sexual tension at the heart of his story. Claude attempts to murder his brother/Woodford out in the forest, the same place where Woodford was arrested for killing the werewolf.
Providence is a cinematic construction that will seem awkward in any verbal synopsis. As directed and edited by Alain Resnais the pattern of the puzzle is almost immediately clear and surprisingly easy to follow: what we witness are free-flowing ideas from writer Clive Langham’s mind. Clive is ‘directing’ his invented storyline and the movie we see is the result of his direction. At several points the fussy Clive backtracks for an immediate do-over of part of a scene. Dialogue is repeated in a different tone or in a different setting.
The drunken, suffering Clive keeps doubling over in pain from a sensation that he describes as a hot poker being stuck up his rear end. So it’s no surprise that his play-narrative has many undigested elements, detours and dead ends. The setting is a city apparently under the authority of a repressive government. We see people arrested on the street and herded into holding pens. That and the likewise unexplained “werewolf” theme seem a metaphor for something else, perhaps the alienation and forced isolation of people near death. Introduced and then dropped, the werewolf idea later returns to bring Claude’s story to an ironic impasse. Like a rough draft, Clive’s tale isn’t quite hitting the right notes. The most extraneous interruptions are two unflinching cutaways to an autopsy in progress. Clive is certainly musing about his own mortality, and reaching for the ultimate image.
As might an experimental play about “characters in search of a theme”, Providence poses difficult acting problems for its stars. All come through brilliantly, embodying Clive’s exaggerated emotions. Claude expresses Clive’s withering disdain for ‘inferior’ people, along with a yearning for a lost purity. A jumble of frustrated emotions grasping for an outlet, Sonia outrages her husband just to shake him up. David Warner perfectly suits the somewhat passive Kevin (or Kevin #2), yet quickly learns how to parry Claude’s insults and provoke him in retaliation.
This is of course the surface of Providence. Critics, essayists and cinema analysts have had a field day working over legitimate allusions and constructing elaborate theories about its form. For instance, different areas of Clive’s house have been aligned with parts of his psyche, as Leo Marks seems to have done in his screenplay of Peeping Tom.
The big shock in Providence occurs outside of Clive’s invented fictional narrative. As he drinks and suffers, sometimes sinking to the floor when the pain becomes too strong, Clive savagely criticizes his grown children and even finds cruel words for his beloved lost wife. These people are coming to celebrate his birthday, and he seems intent on preparing himself for a terrible scene. The birthday get-together does indeed finally occur … and is nothing like what we expect.
To some degree the Clive Langham character is modeled after John Gielgud, as both are opinionated, contrary and caustic personalities. Dirk Bogarde introduced Resnais and author John Mercer to the actor for just that purpose. Sir John Gielgud typically had little good to say about his film work, But he’s on record as considering Providence one of his top two pictures, that he thinks actually amount to something meaningful. Like an X-Ray machine, his tour-de-force performance shows us the man, the fantasies he acknowledges and those of which he’s unaware.
No less impressive is Dirk Bogarde. We’re accustomed to seeing the star playing insecure and conflicted Englishmen for Joseph Losey. Here Bogarde must convey several versions of the ‘unfinished’ character Claude. As Claude is Clive’s mouthpiece, one of the ‘Claudes’ exhibits Clive’s articulate speech and cruel hauteur. The other characters are even more plastic. Ellen Burstyn’s Sonia is the most consistent, which oddly makes her the least interesting. David Warner and Elaine Stritch’s multiple characters are probes into possibilities, as Clive is still working out the relationships. The only thing Clive seems sure of is that he likes drama boiling with anger, frustration and sexual aggression.
Providence was a big picture for Alain Resnais. Three years had passed since his previous film Stavisky, a gap of time sufficient to derail any directing career. Stavisky’s designer Jacques Saulnier returned to put together this film’s handsome interiors. One setting with a view of the ocean uses static painted backdrops. In this film they seem wholly appropriate, as if Clive Langham’s mind was too occupied by his characters to construct a full setting, like the brain-generated ‘realities’ of Philip K.Dick’s novel UBIK. Even more impressive is the film’s romantic music score, composed by the legendary Miklos Rozsa. Providence really needs a quality Blu-ray release, in all regions.
Jupiter Communications’ Region 2 PAL DVD of Providence is an acceptable presentation that isn’t quite up to present standards of quality. Apparently Jupiter acquired the rights, recovered the negative from the lab and performed a 2K scan restoration. The director of photography then supervised the timing so that it matched the release prints and early video masters. The colors are good but the image still looks soft, especially in a large screen home theater situation.
Much of the dialogue is post-synched, which adds a strange quality to the dream scenes. Odd reverberation has been added to lines of dialogue, and even partial lines of dialogue, that indicate Clive’s intervention in the character’s action. Decoding the sense of this obviously requires multiple viewings. It’s much like Synecdoche N.Y., a picture that owes a lot to the film.
Jupiter does make a good effort to be thorough with its extras. Their disc contains video interviews with cameraman Ricardo Aronovitch, actor Pierre Arditi and the designer Jacques Saulnier, and an audio interview with Alain Resnais. American viewers will be happy to know that the disc is encoded with its original English track and a dubbed French track, and a choice of either French or English subtitles.
Region 2 PAL DVD
1977 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 99 min.
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, David Warner, Elaine Stritch, Cyril Luckham, Dennis Lawson.
Cinematography Ricardo Aronovich
Production Design Jacques Saulnier
Original Music Miklos Rozsa
Written by David Mercer
Produced by Yves Gasser, Klaus Hellwig, Yves Peyrot
Directed by Alain Resnais
Supplements: Interviews video and audio (see above)
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English, French
Packaging: Keep case