:- Two’s company

Alain Resnais is a master at manipulating time and narrative in his work. His latest pair of films - Smoking and No Smoking use the plays of Britain’s Alan Ayckbourn as their source. The French director tells Trevor Johnston how this unlikely combination came about.

You‘d certainly be forgiven for reckoning Alain Resnais. arty French cineaste par excellence. and Alan Ayckbourn. erstwhile theatrical chronicler of the English chattering classes. as something of an odd cross-cultural couple. But if you did. you would be overlooking the disarming artistic congruence revealed by their unexpected collision in the French director‘s latest opus. Smoking and No Smoking two films. to be seen in whatever order the viewer chooses which offer a fascinating celluloid distillation of Ayckbourn‘s sixteen-playjolie (Ie grant/ear. Intimate I:'.\'('Iianges.

As the man who reshaped film history with 1959‘s classic investigation into time and memory. Hiroshima Mon Amour. and the narrative teaser to end ’em all last Year In MarienhaiI in 1961. it’s had to imagine Alain Resnais booking his seats for the latest premiere at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round. Nevertheless. that’s where he went to profess his admiration fora writer-director whose theatrical achievements (too often seen at home as the stuff of upmarket sitcom) he looks on with genuine humility. ‘l’ve been a fan for over twenty years.‘ confesses 72-year-old Breton. ‘and l was nervous about approaching him because I didn’t want him to think l came to Scarborough just so I could get the rights to one of his plays. Like any member of the audience. I was there to enjoy the evening.‘

Intimate lire/ranges chronicles domestic events in the Yorkshire hamlet of Hutton Buscel from the overlapping perspectives of its various characters. proposing a bewildering array of future possibilities for its serio-comic inhabitants. Not. one might think. the most obvious of material fora film least of all when you consider Resnais has shot the film in French. in the studio. with actors Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi playing a cast of ten between them and. certainly. the two films are far removed from a conventional BBC-type adaptation. While an introductory voiceover reliably informs us ‘We are in Yorkshire‘. jarrineg on display throughout. for instace. are a succession of elaborately self-conscious set constructions which emphatically underline the playful fakery of it all. Into this arena stumble the emotionally stunted denizens of the knitwear- sporting English petit bourgeoisie; yet what we hear are not the acutely observed and telling inanities of fluent Ayckbourn-ese. but the vernacular French of

sole cast members Azema and Arditi, both giving grandstand performances.

Once you get used to dialogue in translation and the cartoonish view of little England, however, what’s on offer is a disarming display in the impish delight of storytelling. Jumping off from frustrated housewife Celia Teasdale’s decision to grab a quick ciggie (or not as the case may be). each piece then proceeds to traverse dysfunctional marriages and illusory dreams ofescape. before fanning out in a series of alternative

What we hear are not the acutely observed and telling inanities of tluent Ayckbourn-ese, but the vernacular French of sale cast members Azema and Arditi.

destinies for its variably articulate protagonists. Seen singly. the films‘ over-riding narrative concept is made clear enough: viewed in combination, t‘heir crisscrossing content provides all sorts ofcontextual pay-offs as we experience events from another perspective. culminating at length in a uniquely achieved sense of narrative super-abundance a deliriuru of detail which takes the work further away from the naturalism its wilful artifice has been Haunting all along and, by so doing, epitomises the modernist self—awareness still at the core of Resnais’s remarkable filrnography.

‘I knew that if we kept the basic structure intact. we could remain true to Alan’s intentions,‘ explains the other Alain. dapper. alert and remarkably youthful as he perches on the edge of a leather sofa at the Waldorf for an afternoon of UK interviews. ‘We dropped a couple of sections dealing with the local cricket match and a village pageant on the theme of Boadicea because they werejust too English to translate. but otherwise the content has been

Smoking/No Smoking: ‘3 unique sense of narrative giddiness’ squeezed into the two films. I’m always excited when I see in a scn'pt the opportunity to experiment in a way that’s specific to that particular piece. I’m a formalist, yes. but only if the form is something that’ll add pleasure to the finished result.‘

Between them. Smoking and No Smoking cumulatively create a unique sense of narrative giddiness. striking enough to rank alongside the many other innovative storytelling devices Resnais has deployed throughout a career marked by ceaseless cinematic enquiry. Here is a worthy successor to the time-shifts of Hiroshima or La Guerre Est Finie (I966). and to the wholesale epistemological ambiguity of Morienhad. Yet what the Resnais film Smoking/No Smoking most resembles is the earlier Azema/Arditi vehicle. MeIo (1986). another stage adaptation which concentrates unobtrusively on the details of performance but even goes so far as to include shots of the proscenium drapes themselves. From a filmmaker who has contributed so much to the seventh art, this continuing fascination with the theatrical might be viewed by some as a disappointing retrarzclzement. but Resnais, ever his own man. begs to differ.

‘lt goes back to when l was kid.‘ he reflects. ‘and I sometimes saw films by Sacha Guitry. which never tried to hide the fact that they were plays. four or five times; but the Westerns or adventure movies that were supposedly more “cinematic”, I only saw once. In many ofthe theatre adaptations I’ve seen since. movies where they’ve tried to open up or somehow soften their source plays. there‘s always been this feeling for me that what I’ve liked about the original material has been lost in the process. I believe that if the director is courageous enough. you can avoid that trap, that you can faithfully adapt the play and make it look like a film.‘

Smoking and No Smoking play the Ifdinbaqgh F ilmhoase front Friday I I and Glasgow Film Theatre

front Friday 18 November.

The list 4—- l 7 Nnvemher 1004 17