Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 11 October 2006
Source Studio Canal 35MM Theatrical Print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
The heart is in jeopardy throughout Alain Resnais’ Private Fears in Public Places, as six characters in search of love cross paths during a snowy winter in Paris. The uncertainties observed in the film are not extraordinary, but are perhaps the kind one prefers to keep quiet: the fear of growing old, of being alone, of never making a genuine connection, and the doubt of a larger, heavenly force in our lives. As these fears occur in very ordinary places — a hotel bar, a real estate office, restaurants, etc. — Private Fears in Public Places never confronts these emotions so much as allows its characters to experience them, rather quietly, and with a resigned acceptance for the things they know they cannot change.
The film is based on a popular British play by the same title, and it is easy to sense the theatrical source for the material. Structurally, the film switches locations as if on a revolving stage, repeating apartments and the hotel bar with varying characters moving in and out of locations much as they do within one another’s lives. There is also a slight lack of development; while the connections formed make much sense, the individuals never really grow out of the niche the plot has carved out for them. In short, we have an uptight Catholic woman unleashing her sexuality through extremely controlled methods; the couple whose relationship is fraying at the edges; the demure single gal who can’t even manage to have blind dates meet up with her; her brother, a lonely real estate agent working with the repressed Catholic; and the bartender who serves almost everyone in the group and who is penitently caring for his elderly father.
There is acquiescence in this small cluster, as nearly every individual doesn’t so much seek change as accept the disappointment that falls on their lives as readily as the snowflakes canvassing the backdrop of nearly the entire work. As these are characters not so much in the winter of their lives as early-to-late middle age (with a few perhaps, in their mid-thirties), it’s a fairly interesting assessment of an age group not often noticed in American films, and certainly not with this level of gravity. Aside from the humorous subplot involving the repressed Catholic and her interest in stripping (which honestly seemed a bit old-fashioned), the lives here are somewhat sad, and observed with a thoughtful eye.
Private Fears in Public Places is well-crafted, with skillful camerawork, especially when surveying the spaces characters inhabit and those they hope to occupy, as in the lingering overhead shots in empty apartments. There is also the particular use of snowfall physically invading a philosophical conversation between two characters, an obvious, if lovely visual metaphor. However, by its conclusion Private Fears in Public Places is the minor work of an accomplished auteur, whose moniker has cast privilege on this film; the neatly presented piece feels just a tad too comfortable for the man who once gave us characters A & X.