Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs, 2006)

Director: Alain Resnais


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Alain Resnais is a singular director who, judging by the dreamy interiority of many of his films (most famously Last Year at Marienbad), may feel most at home by himself living in a rich fantasy world. Therefore, the choice of material for his latest film—a sex farce by the wildly popular British playwright Alan Ayckbourn—seems a strange one indeed. Nonetheless, Resnais is nothing if not a Frenchman in love with love, and the title he adopted for the Ayckbourn play, Coeurs, means “hearts.” In Resnais’ world, however, the hearts of his players aren’t madly jumping from bed to balcony, but rather are badly bruised and bared in a melancholic atmosphere.

The film takes up the interlocking stories of six people: an engaged couple, the real estate agent who is trying to find them a new apartment, the agent’s live-in sister, a religious woman who works with the agent, and a bartender. We learn that the couple Nicole (Laura Morante) and Dan (Lambert Wilson) are unhappy. Dan was drummed out of the military and has been laying around their cramped flat in a state of resentment and idleness, broken only by his trips to a nearby hotel bar to get drunk and talk to Lionel (Pierre Arditi), who feeds him the drinks and clipped, noncommittal conversation in which bartenders specialize. Nicole visits inadequate apartment after unsuitable apartment with Thierry, the agent, (André Dussollier), pointing out how large rooms have been divided in half into smaller rooms with obvious flaws. The inspections seem to be a metaphor for the way her formerly expansive, loving relationship with Dan has been made small and cramped by time and circumstance.


After another fruitless outing with Nicole, Thierry returns to his glass-walled office, where his colleague Charlotte (Sabine Azéma) cheers him up in her way by handing him a videotape of her favorite television program, a religious interview show called “The Song that Changed My Life.” Thierry, all smiles, accepts the tape, then confides to his sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré) that he Coeurs%205%20edit.JPGmade the mistake of feigning interest in the show and now feels obliged to watch it. This he will do when Gaëlle goes out for the evening with her friends. Unfortunately, Gaëlle is headed for a long night waiting in vain for a blind date she set up through the classifieds to show up at a coffee house. Meanwhile, Thierry discovers that the tape segues from a religious tract to homemade pornography; though he can’t see the woman’s face, he’s sure it’s Charlotte.

In the meantime, Charlotte has taken a second job being the evening caretaker for Lionel’s abusive, invalid father while Lionel is at work. Lionel lives alone, having lost his partner (perhaps to AIDS) and his mother. He feels obliged to care for the father who abandoned him and his mother when Lionel was a teen, but the job isn’t easy. Charlotte soon ends up with soup all over her, broken dishes at her feet, and a string of filthy insults assaulting her from the room where the unseen father has taken leave of his senses.


Now that we have the set-ups, the film rolls out the elements that would have doors opening and slamming in any respectable farce. Nicole throws Dan out, and he ends up with Gaëlle on a blind date. Thierry, after viewing a second tape with an even sexier interlude tacked on, decides to make his move. And Charlotte—well, she makes sure the old man keeps still on her last night of caring for him in a bizarrely humorous way.

Private Fears in Public Places maintains the theatrical atmosphere of the source material. Although Resnais strips most of the farcical elements from what is essentially an homage to the classic French farces of Molière, he seems to call on Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello for inspiration. Like Pirandello’s absurdist play Six Characters in Search of an Author, the six characters in Private Fears in Public Places are intertwined, trapped in claustrophobic and intentionally artificial settings. Resnais is given to shooting straight down into the roofless apartments Nicole visits with Thierry, emphasizing the artificiality of the movie set and the ratlike maze in which the characters are caught. Charlotte is seen to be a religious hypocrite and liar, very much in keeping with sentiments common in the works of Molière, but sympathetically human nonetheless. Unlike the unfortunates of Pirandello, Resnais provides his characters with open doors in an acknowledgment of their humanity. Some walk through those doors, others remain trapped, others find themselves unexpectedly freed. In this way, Resnais adds a genuinely religious framework of free will and grace to the proceedings.

Coeurs%204%20edit.JPGOver it all, Resnais blankets his film with pure, soft snow—actual snow on the ground and falling on his characters as they move through the streets of Paris; scene segues that fill the frame with snow; and snow falling inside Lionel’s kitchen and across his and Charlotte’s intertwined arms as Lionel speaks intimately about his family—of course, this last snowfall is metaphorical, signaling, perhaps, a moment of grace. Watching this film is like opening a very special gift from a person who has found exactly the right thing to give you. What that gift might be is for you to discover.

  • mdoli spoke:
    15th/08/2012 to 10:54 am

    Perfect precise critique – like usual.
    Before the free showing of “Coeurs” in a Paris park, we were entertained with a short anecdote about the title just before the screening. It seems, as Resnais filmed the movie, he had no title. But he kept a notebook of possible titles that came to over a hundred by the time he had finished cutting. With the difficulty of deciding on a title, he noticed at that all the titles had the word “coeur” (heart) in them, so he just titled the film “Coeurs”.
    Your comments on snow are really important. It should be noted, first of all that it rarely snows in Paris. The film, which covers 3 days and nights (if I’ve counted correctly) of constant snowfall shows an irreal/unreal amount of snowing. But being from Chicago, I noticed that the snow on the ground, as seen outside the windows, never got above a couple inches. Now we snow-country people know that it should have been at least knee-high by the third evening. Did this detail escape Resnais’ attention because he is unfamiliar with snow? Or does it have some more important significance?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/08/2012 to 1:39 pm

    Hi Marlene. Fascinating stuff about the title, which never really made a lot of sense to me (or to the English retitlers, apparently). Resnais often uses snow and other white images in his films, and I have to think the meaning is personal, an image of melancholy. I found this also, which seems reasonable: “the film’s distinctive ‘curtain’ effect, a rush of snowflakes that comes in over most every cross-fade, it would appear that little innovation went into making this material more screen-specific.” (Nick Pinkerton, Reverse Shot blog)

  • mdoli spoke:
    16th/08/2012 to 4:18 am

    Further on the notions of snow and hearts: While we cannot say that the characters are victims of broken hearts, their needy hearts all seem to have a thin layer of frost over them, covering an unfilfilled longing for love. Lionel is the prime example, where he tends to speak at all times with cool detachment whether at home or at work – and yet he seems to care about others. Only the bedridden father, might be considered the exception (that proves the rule); constantly in the heat of anger at the world, but with Charlotte’s help, he gets his heart’s desire, only to have his heart joyously boil and burst.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/08/2012 to 8:58 am

    That is a good point, Marlene, and definitely in keeping with Resnais’ concerns about emotional coldness and detachment. I actually loved that scene with Charlotte’s “exotic dancing.” It’s funny, but also perhaps a bit cautionary about allowing too much emotion into your life.

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