Alain Resnais‘ "Private Fears in Public Places" is, like his 1993 film "Smoking/No Smoking," an adaptation of a play written by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, which explains why its six characters act so oddly prurient about sex and so oddly excited about tea-drinking. It’s hard to say if it would have been a less tiresome film if set in London; as is, the setting restrictions necessitated by a play combine with the constant snow (it even manages to invade scene transitions) and the initial pan over a slightly obvious model of the city to give the impression that the film takes place not in Paris but in a giant souvenir snowglobe.
The urbanites in "Private Fears" long for human connection and meaning, as urbanites are often wont to do. Nicole and Dan (Laura Morante and Lambert Wilson) and engaged and looking for an apartment together, but he’s out of work and drifting, whiling his days away at a hotel bar, and she’s getting more and more frustrated. Thierry (AndrÃ© Dussollier) is their real estate broker, who lives with his lonely sister Gaelle (Isabelle CarrÃ©, an unexplained quarter-decade younger than her supposed sibling) and who’s taken a romantic interest in his religious coworker Charlotte (Sabine AzÃ©ma). Charlotte has a side job as a caretaker for the elderly and infirm â€” she’s currently looking after the father of Lionel (Pierre Arditi), the bartender at Dan’s watering hole of choice.
"Private Fears" telegraphs its intentions from far off, but its problems are less awkwardness than absence of believability. The coy theatrical nods (in most of the settings, the camera stays in one room, even as characters step out of view into others, and the lighting sometimes consists of a flat-out spotlight) aren’t anywhere as distancing as the fact that every character’s problems are laughably one-note. There’s a bit of charm to the film’s irony-free pining and epiphanies, but it’s a dusty one, as creaky as one plotline’s reliance on the wonders of recording TV shows onto a cassette. We wouldn’t quibble about dated technology normally, but the film goes out of its way to also show characters flashing cellphones that don’t at all figure in to the action of the film. They may be intended as a reassurance of the film’s contemporary setting, but they’re more an unfortunate sign that the once cutting-edge Resnais, now in his 80s, no longer has any sense of the contemporary urban life he’s trying to depict.
Screens October 6 and 7 at Alice Tully Hall.