Claude Ridder wanted to end it all. Too bad he couldn’t get it right, a bullet fired into his chest merely landing him in hospital, one more botched suicide left to contemplate his problems and failures. How lucky for him then to be given a purpose, chosen by a mysterious corporation as the first human guinea-pig for their experiments with time travel. As one scientist explains tartly, “It works if you’re a mouse.” With nothing left to lose, Claude is cavalier about revisiting his past. Appearing at TIFF this Thursday, May 15th, Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), is director Alain Resnais’ exquisite exploration of time and memory. Given the opportunity to relive his past, Claude dives in, quite literally, to a beachside ocean from a year before. It being time travel, what could possibly go wrong?
It being time travel, quite a lot.
Ensconced in a wonderful pod sprouting glowing tubes, reclining in a moulded bean-bag chair with only a rodent for a traveling companion/experimental control, Claude is set adrift in his past. At first, all seems fine, if curious. He finds himself snorkelling in the ocean, his lover Catrine nearby at the water’s edge. It seems a more idyllic time, even as he jumps briefly forward and back in the flow of time, walking back to her, then swimming again, then picking up their words together mid-conversation. The test the scientists have concocted is for him to experience one minute from a year ago. But their system for retrieval fails, and Claude finds himself drifting between the present and countless moments from his past. In the present, he’s invisible to the researchers, an unseen prisoner lying helplessly within the pod. In his kaleidoscopic, disjointed past, we begin to assemble the pieces of what went before, his passionate but ambivalent relationship over several years with Catrine, his desultory affairs, and what leads to his disconsolate suicide attempt.
Is it time travel? Not in the way we typically see it contemporarily. Unlike Looper, Continuum, Primer or even a good timeline hopping instalment of Star Trek, there’s not much sense of temporal agency. Perhaps Claude is too depressed to want to change anything, but as we flit through countless vignettes over the several years of his relationship with Catrine, he makes no effort to choose a different path. The flow is much closer in feel to, and indeed a deep influence on, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Resnais’s short cuts and snippets of scenes slowly assemble themselves into the narrative of Claude’s life, but its contours aren’t always clear. He claims to a paramour he killed Catrine in Glasgow, but whether the death is deliberate, accidental or metaphorical isn’t spelled out. A tryst with a stranger in a hotel bath could be real or fantasy. Either way, we see Claude’s life flashing before our eyes: quotidian, passionate, ironic, dejected. Only at the end does Claude manage to break out of the flow, though his escape seems an ultimate return to consequence.
Resnais is a superb filmmaker, renowned for his holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955), and the dreamlike narratives of Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Je t’aime, je t’aime is his bemused excursion into sci-fi, and the fascinating unspooling of a life. Claude Rich is excellent as the witty, weak-willed Claude Ridder, the sort of charming bastard movies love. He’s not an entirely likeable chap, but as Resnais cuts expertly through the random moments of Rich’s life, we become invested in the mystery of his suicide attempt and his time-shifting plight. The film itself transforms from a dancing collage into a moving meditation on the moments of life, and how our psyches give weight to them. In Resnais’ exploration, change isn’t the point. Or perhaps this man’s tragedy is his inability to change.
TIFF has a sparkling new 35mm print of the film they’re presenting as part of the TIFF Cinematheque Special Screening Series, and Je t’aime, je t’aime appears Thursday, May 15th at 6:30pm in Toronto.
- How that time-traveling tuber-pod must’ve inspired a young David Cronenberg!
- The way Claude Ridder walks backward in certain scenes is fascinating, like even before being trapped in the seas of his memory, he was always backing into life.
- Watching an old movie can sometimes feel like a kind of time travel. What’s remarkable about Je t’aime, je t’aime is its stream of consciousness style seems very close to more contemporary editing, like say, Steven Soderberg’s experimental style in The Limey.
- Alain Resnais and Stan Lee came close to collaborating on two projects (The Inmates and Monster Maker) in the seventies, but neither one came together. Ahhh what might have been!
UPDATE: I tracked down the original trailer. The trailer is rather psychedelic, far more than the movie itself. Gotta be hip to your time, I guess… Check it out:
The TIFF Cinematheque Special Screening Series is close to wrapping up its current selections. They are also presenting a new 35mm print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterful L’Avventura (1960) (May 15, 8:45pm & May 20, 6:30pm), a digital restoration of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1953) (May 17, 4:30pm) and Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima’s classic Boy (1969) (May 18, 4pm). For more details and tickets, see here.