Whether grappling with the horrific realities and scars left over from World War II or the capricious mental states of a lovelorn Parisian bourgeoisie, Alain Resnais had always been far more concerned with the act of remembering as an absurd imposition on the present as he ever was with any didactic cautioning about the dangers of forgetting. In many ways, Resnais was always the most playful and alive of any of the Left Bank (or even New Wave) filmmakers to emerge in the early 1960s, this despite the fact that his most notorious work involved gazing intently at a concentration camp, or the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, or suggesting the traumatic rape of a beautiful woman.
His fifth feature, 1968’s Je t’aime, je t’aime–screening at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on a gorgeous 35mm print Thursday, May 15 at 6:30pm–is often seen as the first sort of relief in his exploration of his signature themes, primarily because it was the first of his films to attempt a balance between the burdens of the past and the tonal whimsy that would characterize his so-called “lighter” late work — for example, a brief scene early in the film shows a couple we so far barely know apparently having an argument; the man says to her, “It couldn’t end otherwise,” to which she responds by stoically tooting a toy horn, End Scene.
Yet there is plenty of melancholy here; in the end, almost too much. The film’s protagonist, Claude (Claude Rich), is plucked straight out of hospital while recovering from a suicide attempt, and invited by a secretive research centre experimenting with time travel called Crespel to be their first human test subject; an ideal subject, he ostensibly has nothing to lose. The opening reel is all set-up; after Claude willfully lets the researchers whisk him away to do whatever they may with him, they explain in layman’s terms the process by which they’ll send him back to a point a year ago, where he’ll stay a short while before being brought back. “Why the past instead of the future?” Claude asks; “Wouldn’t it be more interesting?” the researchers answer. Once Claude’s literally sunken in to the (certifiably Cronenbergian) time travel mechanism, modelled to look something like the human mind, things go haywire, and the film transforms into one of cinema’s more radical experiments in narrative (a)chronology.
Instead of a short trip to a specific moment into his past, Claude is essentially forced to re-endure the entire year leading up to his suicide attempt – in random order, no less. The remaining 75 minutes of the film, thus, are a torrent of blips and snippets in the life of a relationship and its inevitable demise. Scenes begin in media res, taking on a certain meaning, only for the entire tone and import of the scene to be re-contextualized later (sometimes much later) when we are finally shown the moments that led up to that point. As a treatise on the cognitive act of meaning-making, there are few (if any) equals in terms of this film’s rigorous, go-for-broke commitment to alienating its audience’s desire for narrative storytelling.
As is likely clear now, this is a film that, viewed in a post-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind age, cannot help but evoke Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, yet it’s an even more experimental, far darker film than Kaufman and Jonze’s masterpiece even comes close to. Where Kaufman circumnavigates the inevitable melancholy of a past experience to order to revel in the blissful ignorance of beginnings, Resnais’s film ultimately refuses such niceties. Instead, he asks us to swallow the idea that the inner workings of the human mind fundamentally oppose the concept of order, i.e. chronology, which would mean we are incapable of segregating pleasant memories from bad ones. The past, then, is pre-destined to become irreparably rancid. The only blissful ignorance to be found is in the vacuous mind of a small white mouse.