Director: Alain Resnais / Screenplay: AR (From play by Henri Bernstein) / Editing: Albert Jurgenson / DP: Charles Van Damme / Music: Philippe-Gérard
Cast: Sabine Azéma / Fanny Ardant / Pierre Arditi / André Dussollier / Jacques Dacqmine
About the Stories We Tell – and the Truths we Don’t...
A pioneer of the French ‘New Wave’, Alain Resnais took his place alongside other luminaries, with films that considered aspects of memory & how our recollections shift in authenticity & tone, over time. With pictures such as Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and his masterpiece Last Year At Marienbad (1961), he considered the stories we tell – and the truths we don’t…
Resnais was steeped in popular culture, both high and low. From a love of Marvel superheroes to classical music, he ranged over the spectrum. Yet for someone with such eclectic taste, his films tended to embrace a formality, that only gave way to looser material in the latter part of his career. As the New Wave of the Fifties & Sixties gave ground to a new generation of French film-makers, keen to emerge from their often-austere forerunners, Resnais’ response was to apply that severe vision to more emotional themes. Mélo is typical of this late-career period.
Originally written for the stage in the Twenties, by French dramatist Henri Bernstein, Mélo (an abbreviation of ‘Melodrama’) is, in essence, a study of the eternal love triangle: as I’ve said, it’s about the stories we tell each other and the truths we don’t. However, where so many stage-to-screen adaptations attempt to distance ‘the movie’ from the source text or its stage directions, in-pursuit of ‘natural’ locations, Resnais and his brilliant production designer Jacques Saulnier, opted to build every set as if for the stage (with a flurry of period detailing to create a perfect mise-en-scéne). In the hands of DP Charles Van Damme, Resnais would then be forced to adopt near-static positions & angles; such limitation allowing the actors to focus on their (occasionally) long monologues, along with the audience.
It begins with the turning pages of a ‘theatrical programme’ written for the film; stars & crew, filling its pages. Resnais then gives us a stage curtain; blurring the boundary between film & stage yet further. This dissolves to an elaborately-dressed set of a moonlit patio. It’s 1926 and we’re in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge. Three people – two men & a woman – have just finished dinner al-fresco and are moving onto drinks. We learn that the host, Pierre, is lead violinist in an orchestra and, since last he saw his old friend, Marcel, he’s married the younger, vivacious Romaniche.
As conversation ebbs and flows between them, Resnais’ camera moves cautiously. To begin with, our view of ‘the stage’ is static, as if we’re viewing the action from the stalls, but only as exchanges deepen and subtleties are expressed, does he opt for medium shots, whilst resisting the easy push-in for close-ups. Along the way, our VP has shifted too, away from being a distant observer, to now standing right there on-stage, albeit remaining a passive observer.
As it opens itself up, Bernstein’s text is remarkably fluid. Look at Maniche’s obvious attraction to their guest Marcel, and the lascivious hunger behind her eyes, as she pointedly gets her husband to re-fill Marcel’s glass: anything to avoid doing it herself and revealing her sudden attraction to this man. Or her stifled boredom with Pierre, as he talks of having ‘settled’ for a comfortable life & job and how, naturally, she looks to Marcel as a glamorous option. Marcel has known Pierre for years, since they were both music students together, but whereas Pierre has chosen an artistic cul-de-sac, his old friend has become a ‘star’, with a life spent largely ‘on-tour’ with an orchestra.
No wonder Maniche is star-struck…
Evidently musical herself, Bernstein’s writing doesn’t explore the choices made in her life to that point, but I get the distinct impression she’s been thwarted; that her union with Pierre is childless out of his HIS choice. As a result, her love for him is more sentimental than lustful: how else to explain the childish mewling noises the pair of them make to each other, once Marcel’s left? Pierre is a diminished father figure, whereas Marcel is the worldly lover…
Act One of the play, is capped by a remarkable seven-minute monologue from André Dussollier as Marcel. He recounts the moment when, from his seat in the orchestra, he noticed his previous lover out in the audience, making eyes with a mysterious stranger. It’s a powerfully-written and delivered speech about the betrayal of trust, that’s not without its own consequences, for it will lead Maniche (played by Resnais’ own muse and later wife, Sabine Azéma) to initiate an affair with him. She believes her own unfulfilled emotional energy will find its purpose in ‘healing’ Marcel: even if that means hurting Pierre.
Spontaneously, she invites herself over to Marcel’s flat for a ‘private recital’; a plan only thwarted, when Marcel invites Pierre along too. When Pierre unexpectedly agrees, Maniche abruptly withdraws: only to turn-up the next day anyway… Bernstein’s writing does well to convey Marcel’s desperate transition from loyal friend to co-conspirator in the inevitable affair. He knows that what they’re doing is wrong, but he can’t help himself; Maniche has ensnared him at a vulnerable moment: ironic then, that he has to betray the trust of a friend in order to win the trust of another…
In THIS betrayal, however, it’s Maniche who’s making the moves; in a neat reversal of expectations, she’s the predator. Back when Bernstein wrote this piece, I can imagine attitudes would’ve found the subject ‘bracing’, even in liberal Paris…
Act Two opens with Pierre seriously ill. By this point, some time after the opening scene, the text has Marcel & Maniche openly talking about declaring their affair to Pierre, but his illness (a blocked kidney) is merely an ‘inconvenient obstacle’ to Maniche, who’s sailing close-to-the-wind throughout this episode. By turns, she is both manic, selfish & inattentive towards Pierre. Such infantilised behaviour comes from emotional immaturity so, when confronted by the seriousness of Pierre’s complaint, she prefers the more carefree, glamorous life of the kind offered by Marcel. Yet for all that, it’s a shock to have her flee the scene for Paris – and her lover. Then it’s revealed: Maniche had been administering doses of ‘medicine’ to the unfortunate Pierre. Though her intentions aren’t revealed, the suggestion is obvious: there’s an easier option than divorce…
Resnais’ film is working well throughout this section, as characters response authentically to the writing: this then, is a ‘real’ melodrama, in that we have stylised characters, reacting to over-exaggerated events for dramatic effect.
If Pierre’s concerned as to his wife’s whereabouts, he is at least being comforted by Christiane (Fanny Ardant), Maniche’s cousin and a character given free rein to express the loving compassion missing elsewhere.
As you might imagine, Act Three deals with the tragic consequences of the whole situation: this being melodrama, no-one gets to just sit-down and talk things out over a cuppa… Yet even here, amidst the glowing embers of misery, old friends still can’t bring themselves to be honest with each other. Resnais has his two male leads in a situation where there’s a hint of honest reconciliation. A door is opened by one, but the other can’t bring himself to walk through and, to see their mutual pain, ameliorated & compressed to avoid a flashpoint, is a compelling piece of cinema that will linger in the memory.
Throughout the film, I kept thinking of how a Hollywood remake might’ve tackled the material. After some thought I saw the prospect as unlikely, even as creatively indulgent streaming platforms have become the ‘New Indies’. Firstly, Resnais chose an unashamedly straight and uncynical adaptation of the original stage play that, while it suited his period-correct schema, would be too static for a contemporary audience. Secondly, I struggled to think of a trio of actors willing to play such complex, flawed characters as here (even the cuckolded Pierre is his own worst enemy). Third-and-last, I can’t see how the attention-span of a contemporary, mainstream audience would endure Bernstein’s elegant monologues and its cloying, intense atmosphere.
Which leaves Resnais’ gloriously French original. Unseen, unknown and unappreciated by the vast majority, it’s sad to think that this polished gem has been left to sit in the dark for so long: hurrah for Arrow Academy then, for letting it shine once more.
Your husband, Pierre, is suffering. But it’s a clean wound. It’s not infected. His mourning will fade with time.