Monday, March 19, 2007

La Ronde / Private Fears in Public Places: The Theatre

I followed up the EU Fest screening of of Alain Resnais's Private Fears in Public Places with a VHS copy of Max Ophüls's La Ronde. Both films are based on plays, and neither attempts to hide the theatricality inherent--but at the same time the way it's handled and used in the two is radically different.

1. First, Ophüls's film: several vignettes, linked by a narrator who pops in bit parts, costumed, and returns us to the visual metaphor of the merry-go-round (ronde) as a linking set. The stories transition from one another slowly, spending as much time in between as it would take the stage hands to move new set pieces out behind the curtain in a live production. It's an element of the theatre, that live fluidity, that Resnais's film disposes of by linking its stories with a cross-dissolve to falling snow, therefore suggesting a white and icy Paris while managing to show the city itself once--and even that evokes a theatrical trick, some choice lighting and a backdrop.
But here things go in an odd direction: Ophüls, whose film is meant to replicate the feeling of attending a performance, right down to timing, lack the immediacy of seeing something performed. After all, popular theatre (including opera and ballet) derives its power from being immediate--from the fact that the sets are being changed in a room with us, or that the singers or dancers are on an immobile stage, performing for us. Watching someone sing in a movie and seeing them do in real life is not the same thing, and Ophüls circumvents the problem by replacing every theatrical trick with a cinematic one--scenes that rely on the presence of live actors in a play are reinforced by camera movements, long takes that by their very nature seem more impressive than the long take of real life.

2. Resnais, on the other hand, transposes and footnotes. In La Ronde, cinema is substituted for theatre, but in Public Fears in Private Places, theatrical performance is presented in its true form with cinema as a form of commentary. The sets are sets, with some photographed from up above with a transparent ceiling; most are only ever shown from one side, like the bartender's cozy kitchen, framed so as to never show his bed-ridden father yelling from the next room. Even the detail is used theatrically--objects and details are never lingered on (as they would be only specks to a live audience), and on close inspection one realizes that a TV in one of the main sets is not plugged into anything.
For the most part, the film evokes a European television project from the 1960s/1970s in its two-medium-shot set-ups and waist-level camera--it's something that put me off at first, but you have to fight that aesthetic fascism within yourself and see whether it's genuine dislike or simply prejudice. But occasionally a cut or a camera placement radically alters the (theatrical) space, re-describing in ways that can only be done in the aftermath of a live performance. And it's not just the acting that is altered by cinema: by cutting between differently lit versions of the same set, Resnais is able to use lighting both theatrically (as drama) and cinematically (as expression). In one sequence, a warmly lit room becomes a cold and foreboding interior during a minute's worth of difficult conversation; in another, the garish hotel bar, whose purples now seem intertwined with the film in memory, is re-lit with a single spot-light, suddenly showing it as a place no different from any other fashionable bar--not the comforting Technicolor lounge the characters hang around.

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