Not on the Lips

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Andre Barde and Maurice Yvain

With Sabine Azema, Isabelle Nanty, Audrey Tautou, Pierre Arditi, Jalil Lespert, Daniel Prevost, Lambert Wilson, and Darry Cowl

Alain Resnais’ latest feature, Not on the Lips (2003), apparently won’t be shown in commercial theaters in this country. I can’t think of another French movie that’s given me as much pleasure in years–it’s his best since Melo (1986) and surely his most accessible to American audiences. It is showing twice this week in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union festival, and its U.S. distributor, Wellspring, will bring it out on DVD on March 22. DVDs are now more profitable than ticket sales, so I suppose it’s understandable that Wellspring doesn’t want to spend a fortune on a theatrical release. But this movie’s gorgeous visuals are still best seen first on a big screen.

In any case, this delightfully eccentric film of a 1925 French operetta, with its English subtitles laid out in rhyming couplets, can be enjoyed in any format. It has a harmonically rich score, which Resnais calls “brisk and hilariously jubilant,” and it’s brilliantly orchestrated by Bruno Fontaine, featuring counterpoint by Maurice Yvain that’s as lively as the wordplay in Andre Barde’s lyrics.

When Not on the Lips turned up in New York a year ago as part of a package of recent French films, the reviews showed no awareness that Resnais has been an experimental and formalist director throughout his career. Instead they described his film as an immaculately produced but less than satisfying souffle. Eduardo de Gregorio, a Paris-based Argentinean filmmaker who adores the movie, came closer to catching its poetic essence when he told me it was a film about corpses–a description that applies better to Resnais’ very different, though equally opulent, second feature, Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Resnais himself has remarked that the characters are marionettes even though their emotions are real.

The plot is true to classic French farce, with three Parisian romantic couples and lots of slamming doors–except that we hear only one door slam and only briefly. The characters’ exits are marked by lap dissolves that make the actors appear to evaporate, accompanied by the sound of fluttering wings–something Resnais says he did for musical and rhythmic reasons.

In another eccentric move, Resnais has multiplied the asides delivered to the audience in the original operetta so that the characters address the camera in practically every scene. Ernst Lubitsch had Maurice Chevalier do this in the 1932 One Hour With You, but his hero was sharing a few of his private thoughts with the viewer. Here the effect is at times unsettling: nearly all of the characters have something to hide as well as something to brag about, and, as in a Wong Kar-wai film, each is briefly allowed to become a first-person narrator.

All the actors–among them some of the biggest names in French cinema–sing in their own voices, though only one of them, Lambert Wilson (who played the villain Merovingian in the last two installments of the Matrix trilogy), is a professional singer. (Daniel Prevost, in a smaller part, used to be one.) Yet the personalities of the actors and their characters carry far more emotional weight than their musical training–the obvious advantage of using actors who sing rather than singers who act–and that counters the artificiality of the operetta and farce genres even as it complicates Resnais’ formalism. As with Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons in the underrated Guys and Dolls (1955), the efforts of these people to hit all the right notes are intensely moving–not just because they’re trying, but because they succeed. The sense of achievement is palpable. Resnais turned Arlette, the heroine’s aunt in the play, into the heroine’s unmarried sister, making her more sympathetic and less a figure for ridicule, and Isabelle Nanty’s fragile voice when she sings “Quand on n’a pas ce que l’on aime” (“When You Cannot Have What You Love”) is so poignant it brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it.

Wilson plays Eric Thomson, the somewhat boorish American businessman who delivers the title song. He’s a comic figure whose grating accent and prudishness may gratify French audiences in the current political climate–perhaps one reason Wellspring decided not to release the film theatrically in the States. I relish this riotous glimpse of how we look to the French when we’re at our most strident, but in fairness to Resnais, Eric is too multilayered to be seen as a simple national stereotype, much less a villain. He’s the first husband of the heroine, Gilberte (Sabine Azema), whose marriage to him in Chicago was never reported to the French consulate and consequently was never legal under French law. She’s now the devoted wife of Georges (Pierre Arditi), a wealthy industrialist who’s convinced he married a virgin and is about to form a business partnership with Eric (who manages to avoid revealing Gilberte’s guilty secret).

It’s typical of Resnais’ balanced handling of the characters that Georges is just as silly as Eric–he espouses crackpot theories about matrimonial fidelity (with metallurgical metaphors), and he’s a racist and xenophobe who reads an ultra-right-wing newspaper. Gilberte is a shameless flirt who loves to be surrounded by suitors, including Charley (Jalil Lespert), a vain young artist who’s invented his own school of painting to compete with the dadaists–the “Cubisto-Cuneiform” school, or “Coocoo” for short. He’s relentlessly pursued by Huguette (Audrey Tautou), a family friend who uses Arlette as a go-between, and Arlette in turn is drawn to Eric. All these characters and a few others–including a wimpy rake named Faradel (Prevost) who’s also pursuing Gilberte and a concierge played in drag by a comic actor associated with writer-director Sacha Guitry (Darry Cowl)–are stock genre figures made three-dimensional as well as historically grounded types who sometimes suggest contemporary counterparts. (If Eric occasionally evokes Bush or Rumsfeld, Georges makes one think of Jean-Marie Le Pen.) By the end of the second act all the characters have arranged secret assignations at Faradel’s decadent art deco bachelor’s flat–a process charted musically in a triumphant six-part invention worthy of “Fugue for Tinhorns” in Guys and Dolls–and the stage is set for the sorting out of three perfectly matched couples by the end of the third act.

Like Melo, which adapted a serious boulevard play of 1929, Not on the Lips offers a profound history lesson–one that becomes tricky once one realizes that despite the close attention to 1925 details, it has no visible relation to any French film made during that period. It’s like an artifact from a parallel universe where film history took a different turn. In this respect, it’s unlike Resnais’ previous flirtations with musicals: Stavisky… (1974), with its lovely Stephen Sondheim score; Life Is a Bed of Roses (1983), with its operatic segments; and Same Old Song (1997), which appropriates Dennis Potter’s use of lip-synched pop songs. Despite its playful allusions to theater–shadow-play silhouettes to introduce actors, an unrealistic lighting change in the midst of a monologue, a finale that musically thanks the audience for not leaving early–Not on the Lips is closer to a dream than a pastiche, a fantasy grounded in memory and imagination.

Resnais is the most gifted French filmmaker alive (Jean-Luc Godard being more properly regarded as Swiss) and the most misunderstood, especially on this side of the Atlantic. Ever since his first feature, Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), he’s generally been regarded as a French New Wave director, but because he’s never been credited as a film critic or a screenwriter, his status as a member of that group has always been uncertain.

Unlike Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer, Resnais started his official filmmaking career (after 13 years of sporadic amateur efforts) as an industry professional and promptly won an Oscar, for his first short, the 1948 Van Gogh (his only Academy Award to date). He’s also shy and modest, which makes many critics, especially those outside France, reluctant to see him as an auteur. But I would argue that Resnais, who turns 83 this June, is definitely an auteur: he’s consistently preoccupied with the deceptive realities of memory and imagination–most often those of characters, though in Not on the Lips they’re basically his own realities. I’d also call him a film critic and a screenwriter, though his criticism, like much of Godard’s and Rivette’s, is made up of sounds and images rather than words and his screenwriting is always built on the writing of others.

It’s impossible to understand the texture of Marienbad if one doesn’t recognize that it’s a sinister as well as appreciative parody of Hollywood and Hollywood-derived glamour–a quality that never shows up in the features of its credited screenwriter, Alain Robbe-Grillet. And in Resnais’ more probing interviews he reveals that he’s steeped in film history. Among the Hollywood films he showed to his cast and crew while preparing Not on the Lips were Lubitsch’s 1925 film of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan and early sound comedy shorts produced by Hal Roach, specifically ones starring Charley Chase and others with the team of Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts; Todd and Pitts, he notes, were a particular reference point for the interactions between his two sisters, Gilberte and Arlette.

Because I’m not familiar with the Roach shorts, I can’t comment on what Resnais learned or borrowed from them. But I grew up seeing virtually all the MGM color musicals made between the late 40s and mid-50s, and it’s clear that Resnais knows this body of work so thoroughly that his ability to capture its set-bound color and lighting schemes, its richly upholstered sets and costumes, and its giddy moods is probably instinctive. However he arrived at them, his dreamlike evocations of those musicals are much more rich and suggestive than any of the overt Hollywood pastiches that come to mind, including Martin Scorsese’s 1977 New York, New York.

Consider the odd opening of Not on the Lips, which follows an iris out on a gloved hand holding an invitation (“Madame Georges Valandray will receive guests at her home on Tuesday, October 20. Tea, port, bridge”). Moving in a corkscrewlike curve, the camera rises from a tray with a teapot, saucers, cups, and elegant pastries sitting on an oval table to high overhead views of three young women around the table, one of whom circles it in the opposite direction. All of them look up at the camera–and up toward the landing where they’re hoping Gilberte will appear–as they start to sing about their frustration that she hasn’t shown up for her own party. As the camera cuts to each of them singing separate lines, they start speculating that Gilberte might be late because she’s having an affair with Charley or poor, ugly Faradel–at which point Faradel enters, continuing the song and pointing out that he’s overheard them but doesn’t mind. As they politely take his gloves, top hat, overcoat, and bouquet of flowers, he commiserates with them about being stood up, invites them to pig out on the tea and macaroons, and advises them to hide their spite once Gilberte turns up. But when a doorbell rings he sends them off to an imaginary sale at a department store. Briefly alone before the arrival of Huguette, Faradel explains to the camera that he wanted to have Gilberte to himself.

This characteristically weird and graceful stretch of the film fully earns Resnais the modest credit he allows himself at the very end: “mise en scene.” It creates an eerie distance between us and the action, but it also brings us straight to the heart of its emotions: the anger and envy the young women feel toward Gilberte, the malice they feel toward Faradel, and the forgiveness Faradel offers them, complicated by his fatherly advice to be hypocritical and then by his lies. (“Ugly Faradel,” indeed.) This is only the first five minutes of a two-hour film–and none of the major characters has yet appeared.

It’s a truism that musicals are supposed to transport us, though where is in dispute. I find Not on the Lips exhilarating not because its emotions and comedy are light, but because Resnais has found such a beautiful way to express all the conflicting emotions unleashed by a highly conventional musical story. A “souffle” hardly describes it. Much closer to the mark would be an elegant, funny, creepy, soulful, and formally exquisite period operetta that demonstrates a keen sense of how suffocating polite society can be and how persistent desire is in spite of it. In short, the key themes of the Surrealist movement.

When: Sat 3/19, 7:45 PM; Wed 3/23, 6 PM

Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

Price: $9, $7 (students), $5 (Gene Siskel Film Center members)

Info: 312-846-2600