Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mélo (1986), Alain Resnais, with Sabine Azéma

I'm not sure what attracted Alain Resnais to the antiquated play that provides the meat of Melo, other than perhaps he wanted to try his hand at melodrama, but in some ways he'd already done it with Last Year at Marienbad, which in its dance-like teasing way seems like a silent melodrama, whereas this 1986 talkfest is an over-verbose one. It starts unpromisingly -- with two classical musician old buddies and the wife of one of them discussing music and reminiscences over a bottle of wine in a comfy domestic courtyard under the stars. It looks like the cliche of every French art movie. The talk occurs at the home of the musician, Pierre -- a washout who has settled into comfortable domesticity and an unremarkable career -- and his wife, Romaine, and the guest is his old best friend, Marcel, an internationally successful solo classical violinist. Marcel, unlike Pierre, can't settle down and indeed seems to have soured on love after a series of trysts in which he always felt betrayed by women -- all of whom he has decided are the same. Without going into too much detail, Romaine deceptively engineers her own trysts with Marcel after being intrigued by one of his tales of romantic woe, and in the end the affair leads to tragedy. A Brahms sonata, it seems, turns her into a hyper-romantic horndog. Played with her lover, it's an aphrodisiac but when her dull husband requests the same duet (she on piano, he on violin) she can't abide the thought. Resnais pays homage to the theatrical origins of the piece in his framing segues, often joining sequences with the image of a proscenium and a closed red velvet curtain. This, and the use of intentionally artificial-looking settings remind audiences who might be less than persuaded by the histrionics to remember that this is, indeed, an old stage meller. Or it might also be Resnais dabbling in the same kind of artificiality that marked two other films of the vintage, Coppola's One From the Heart and Beineix's Moon in the Gutter. After awhile, the piece seems to become timeless -- its concerns about the complications of passion are never out of style and in fact the movie is better than its source material. Those expecting, or worrying about, Resnais' usual elliptical narrative hijinks should know that Melo is narratively straightforward. Acting, settings, direction are all fine, even though one gets the sense that Resnais is coasting a bit. That notion is dispelled when you realize that it takes hard work to do what he's done here, which is turn chicken shit into chicken salad, even if it's slightly gamey. When Romaine walks down by the river to meet her fate, one is reminded of Bresson's Une femme douce, a film I'm not fond of but which haunted me at the end. Your mileage will vary with the film. I was bored at first, admittedly, but found myself slowly being pulled into its spell and for certain effective moments, as when Romaine tries to take a clandestine phone call from Marcel during a dicey moment at home. In her guilt, with her puke green dress matching the color of a painting on the wall in the tiny foyer as she cradles and whispers into the phone, she resembles a green monster crouching in the darkness. The lack of information about the gel holding Pierre and Romaine together, as well as the dearth of detail about the development of the initial stages of the affair between Romaine and Marcel made it a bit difficult for me to care much, and yet the mood seems to compensate somewhat for the mechanics. Melo is a minor film, perhaps nothing more than a mildly accomplished diversion and yet there is something whole and pure about it; it is "of a piece," as they say. However, if you're strapped for time I'd refer you instead to either the 1936 Swedish version or the 1938 Hollywood version of Intermezzo, if classical-music-imbued three-way romantic melodramas are what you have a hankering for. Grade C

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