Sunday, August 14, 2022

Resnais at Film Forum: Je T'Aime, Je T'Aime

Claude Ridder is not your typical time-traveling hero, but he was a fitting protagonist for Alain Resnais, the late surrealist filmmaker, who was often associated with the French New Wave, despite never fully identifying with the movement. In fact, Resnais’s take on time-travel film could represent the ultimate Nouvelle Vague film, because of its radically fractured approach to time. After consenting to serve as a human guinea pig in a time-traveling experiment, Ridder finds himself uncontrollably reliving brief snippets of his life in Resnais’s Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime (I Love You, I Love You), which is definitely worth re-watching in honor of the filmmaker’s recent centennial.

Ridder is a pitiable fellow in many ways. He still works as a shipping clerk at a Parisian publishing house, due to his chronic lack of ambition. Ridder also just survived a suicide attempt. Rather symbolically, he tried to shoot himself through the heart. Yet, his rather cavalier attitude towards life is what attracts the Crispel Research Center.

As the various blandly bureaucratic scientists explain to Ridder, they successfully sent mice back in time for one minute and then returned them safely. Of course, mice cannot discuss the experience, so they wish to recruit him to be their first human test subject. Ridder does not have any good reason to decline, so he agrees.

Much to everyone’s alarm, something goes wrong with the process this time. Ridder keeps randomly “quantum leaping” into past episodes of his life, many of which involve his troubled relationship with Catrine, who struggled with depression until her early demise. At various times, Resnais leads the audience to suspect something definitely transpired between them that contributed to her death and his suicide attempt.

Resnais’s 1968 film is often considered a source of inspiration for
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it is worth noting Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime also predates Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five and the subsequent George Roy Hill film adaptation. It certainly constitutes a fractured narrative, by any standard or measure. As Ridder endures the shuffle-play of his sad history for viewers to watch, each jump gets shorter, with surreal imagery starting to intrude into what had appeared to be an otherwise mundane existence.

Arguably, Resnais’s narrative approach was considerably ahead of the other genre films of its era. However, the scenes in the Crispel Center have a cold, sterile vibe reminiscent of classic 1960s science fiction films like Jean-Luc Godard’s
Alphaville and Dr. Heywood Broun’s early sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That coldness is similarly reflected in the characters, especially Ridder, who is standoffish and often rather self-sabotaging. Likewise, Catrine is usually moody and distant—or at least that is how he remembers her.

Resnais demands the audience’s full attention, by revisiting key incidents from different perspectives, at slightly earlier or later time-frames. It might look repetitive, but there are nuances to pick up on. Ultimately, when it all comes together, it lands with devastating emotional force.

Krzytstof Penderecki (whose compositions were famously incorporated into the soundtrack of
The Exorcist) composed an appropriately tragic film score. Yet, Thelonious Monk’s “Mysterioso,” only briefly heard before a pivotal incident, might just be the perfect musical expression of Ridder’s time-travel, due to its rhythmic syncopation and angular melody.

Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime is a science fiction masterwork that is always unjustly left off the genre click-bait listicals (much like Fassbinder’s World on a Wire and Marker’s La Jetee), but it was quite influential and it still holds up with the best science fiction of the era, because it is driven by the destructive power of human memory and emotions. This is a perfect time to watch it again or for the first time, especially if you live in New York, where Film Forum will screen it August 14th, 15th, 18th,21st, and 23rd, as part of their Alain Resnais 100 retrospective film series. (It also streams on the Kino Now platform.)