Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Alain Resnais’ Puzzles: Not on the Lips

Alain Resnais’ latest movie, Not on the Lips (Pas sur la Bouche), will be puzzling for most Americans, who are familiar with Resnais’ works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but less so with his work since then. Like his Melo, Resnais here adapts a seemingly lightweight antique story from the 1920s, this time a forgotten operetta by Andre Barde.

Most critics have been content to treat Pas sur la Bouche as a meaningless and fun entertainment. Yet, I wonder if they are not missing something. Resnais has often made extensive play between beautiful surface spectacle and underlying reality (such as Last Year at Marienbad) a central feature of his work.

There are numerous disturbing undercurrents which are merely hinted at within Pas sur la Bouche. From the very first moment of the film, we are reminded constantly of the economic supports behind all the surface beauty – Georges Valandray’s and Eric Thompson’s steel fortunes. Unlike most fairy tales, Pas sur la Bouche never lets us forget that the actual impetus behind the play is that Valandray and Thompson hope to merge their respective steel companies into a global empire (which is the only reason why Thompson is visiting France at all).

Both Valandray and Thompson are portrayed as quite unattractive figures. Many critics have painted Thompson’s portrayal as anti-American, but Resnais’ Georges Valandray is, if anything, much more darkly presented. Georges sings a strange song (“I was pushed aside”) that is openly racist and anti-immigrant (cutting heavily against the thesis that the movie is purely light-hearted). Georges is specifically shown reading the far-right-wing newspaper of the 1920s and 1930s, Action Francaise. In addition, Georges’ eros is shown up as highly flawed - he gives several bizarre speeches comparing love-making to steel-making, speeches which attempt to explain why he values virginity so highly, yet the speeches come off perverse and even disturbing, while the all of Georges’ other speeches are very elegant and pleasing.

Thompson’s phrase, “pas sur la bouche”, becomes the title of the entire operetta. Thompson does not like to be kissed on the lips, pointing up his inadequate eros. Unlike Georges Valandray, however, the American Thompson is shown more as a distant, even cold figure, without many opinions at all (except for a distaste for the germs he fears passed through kissing). Unlike the Frenchmen within the movie, all of whom fancy themselves accomplished lovers (though none of them are as accomplished as they want to believe), Thompson seemingly does not see himself as lover or beloved, and rudely rejects, for example, the kisses of four gorgeous young French ladies during the central party sequence.

It is interesting to note that the uneconomic men within the movie, the artist Charlie and the aging Don Juan Faradel, are both considerably more thoughtful and attractive figures that the economic men. However, neither actually are particularly more successful with women under their efforts (Charlie does eventually win the love of Huguette, but only by mistake). Meanwhile, both unattractive economic men do win women – Georges Valandray retains his wife, and Eric Thompson marries her sister.

Though much of the movie delights in the surface luxuries of the 1920s, Resnais is to some extent cutting against that surface luxury by gradually pointing us toward where the luxury comes from – the economic machinations of two deeply flawed men.


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