Gus Reed is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy. In his first dispatch for FilmLinc Daily, he spotlights Alain Resnais's first English-language film, Providence, its early dismissal and its re-born appeal among “internet savvy film buffs.”
Providence was lost, but not forgotten. Its return to the big screen in New York City as one of the eleven films revived in this year’s New York Film Festival is a reconciliation thirty-six years in the making. At the time of its initial release in 1977, the fact that it was French director Alain Resnais’s first film in English didn’t make it any more palatable to English-speaking audiences and critics. Vincent Canby, then chief film critic for The New York Times, called it a “disastrously ill-chosen comedy” which amounted to “a lot of fuss and fake feathers about nothing.” In a matter of weeks, it disappeared.
Since then, it has occupied a murky position in Resnais’s exalted filmography, overshadowed by his earlier, more widely seen masterworks like Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). But there’s a reason some moviegoers remain immutably fascinated by the dim memory of its initial theatrical run, and new generations of enterprising, Internet savvy film buffs circulate clandestine European bootlegs amongst themselves. Even three and a half decades later, it’s a startling embarrassment of cinematic riches.
Providence is no less an affront to the conventions of classical storytelling than, say, Last Year at Marienbad, but the story at the film’s core is disarmingly simple. Over the course of a single sleepless night, a cantankerous aging novelist imagines parts of his next book. These bizarre imagined scenes, starring the same four principal characters, make up the main body of the film. We realize, gradually, that the novelist has modeled these characters on members of his own family—his sons, Claude (Dirk Bogarde) and Kevin (David Warner), Claude’s wife, Sonia (Ellen Burstyn), and his own deceased wife, Molly, who, in this fictional fever-dream, is recast as Claude’s mistress, Helen (Elaine Stritch).
The internal narrative, on shaky ground from the start, grows increasingly fractured and febrile as the night goes on. The author commentates on certain shots in gruff voice-over, sounding less like a narrator than a grouchy, confused old man recording DVD commentary for a film he hasn’t seen. The wrong characters suddenly intrude upon scenes like actors bungling their cues. Sets change from shot to shot. Ellen Burstyn’s character, Sonia, a bored housewife at the center of a limp love triangle, delivers ponderous lines like, “Kevin, I’m not overawed by the universe” with deadly intensity. At one point, in a surge of emotion, Sonia moves her lips, but the novelist’s gruff voice comes out like a bark. The jig is up; the strings on these character-puppets are brazenly visible.
The world just beyond the immediate sphere of this domestic melodrama, Resnais always reminds us, is one of random destruction. The novelist, obsessed with his own failing body, conjures up images of violence and decay—including one wrenchingly matter-of-fact shot of a real autopsy, filmed in a morgue in Antwerp. Claude, driving through the city, watches a teetering old man collapse in a crosswalk and a wrecking ball tear into a crumbling building without so much as blinking. During a tranquil conversation, a rumbling sounds somewhere in the distance. Helen pauses for a second, then shrugs. “Another bomb…” she gripes, knowingly.
When bloodshed finally erupts among the characters, it triggers a complete breaking point—a sudden narrative shift akin to those in the final acts of David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive. This is not simply a transformation in tone, mood and color, but in the very semantics of filmmaking. We are suddenly faced with a much more stable vision of the world and a placid domestic scene populated by familiar character types—which now seem just as hallucinatory and unreal as the novelist’s mercurial, baldly artificial creations.
It is difficult to convey in words how, for all its grotesquerie and existential despair, Providence is a laugh-out-loud comedy. Resnais’s meticulous attack on the logic of conventional film continuity amounts to a kind of cinephilic slapstick. The novelist’s sputtering attempts to string together a story, which cause him such frustration, result in joyfully spontaneous twists and turns away from what we’ve come to expect from a narrative feature. Some of these moments, like a tense melodramatic standoff in which shots of the characters’ faces are inanely intercut with close-ups of a telephone, are subtly geared towards those who appreciate how cinematic processes like montage work.
Other moments of humor—the novelist’s brusque narration, a character who jogs into scenes at inopportune times, most of Dirke Bogarde’s lines—slap you across the face. Any pretensions of cerebral detachment, on the part of the characters or the filmmaker himself, are deflated. The dying writer faces all-too-bodily ordeals alongside his artistic torments; he grumbles to himself about red-brown stains in his underwear and wakes up in the night to administer suppositories.
In 1977, Providence wasn’t the only new film vivisecting the notion of a character’s fixed identity. In Robert Altman’s 3 Women, personalities overlap, shift and consume one another; Luis Buñuel, in That Obscure Object of Desire, uses two wildly different actresses to represent a girl who remains unattainable and unknowable. Perhaps most fortuitously, a few months after Providence’s brief engagement in New York City, Lynch’s Eraserhead began its ninety-nine week run at the Waverly Cinema (the future IFC Center), beginning the luminous career of one of many major filmmakers indebted to Resnais’s knotted, thorny explorations of memory and imagination.
With this long-overdue DCP restoration and introduction to a new generation of film lovers at the New York Film Festival, Providence finally seems poised to take its rightful place alongside these other iconic films. Resnais’s unholy convergence of melodrama and slapstick, bleak poetry and toilet humor—all flowing beneath Miklós Rózsa’s bristling symphonic score—is an evergreen testament to film’s elasticity as a medium. The rules Providence breaks have been broken endlessly since—but rarely is the rebellion so oddly, darkly joyful.