Time and time again I knew what I was doing and
Time and time again it just made things worse
It seems you see the most of what is really true when
You’re stepping into your hearse
Only time can write a song that’s really really real
The best a man can say is how its play on him does feel
And know he only knows as much as time to him reveals
—’Time’, Richard Hell (Destiny Street, 1982)
Time, it’s said of in the opening sequences of Alain Resnais’ 1968 sci-fi Je t’aime, je t’aime, is something that scientists can explore the past of but not the future of, and even then, only at intervals of a minute at a time. It seems a safe enough enterprise, a white lab mouse is shown to have safely made the excursion in one piece, but then, as the scientists readily point out, a mouse is unable to verbally recount the voyage, so a human is necessary to make the experimental trip. But, time is also a creator of feelings and memories, often darkly sad or painfully repressed, not merely a void with which to experiment and observe, so our hero’s journey might not be the seamless excursion we’re being sold.
It’s this dynamic that constructs the narrative shifting work, the rare science fiction work as interested in humanity as it is with scientific constructs. Keeping this in mind as the film opens remains important, even as we see scientists appear warm, generous and inquisitive to Claude (Claude Rich). We approach genre territory when they admit elsewhere a guinea pig is what is sought; convicts were considered, then ultimately Claude selected ‘out of millions’ by a computer selection algorithm. It admonishes the scientist of future guilt (that genre dictates is coming) when it’s revealed that Claude’s attempted suicide is the clincher in making him the ideal candidate; if the experiment—a time travel back exactly one year in Claude’s life for one minute—is a success, then fine, no harm done, but if it isn’t, and they have no idea if it will be, then he gets the probable conclusion to his life that his self-inflicted gunshot wound failed to provide. It’s a cynical nod to science fiction one must read between the lines to understand, only fostered even more by Jacques Sternberg’s wonderful script touches (a prolifically original writer of such works in the French language).
Once the film ends its first act, Claude enters the sealed dream device (that looks like a large pillowy sun burnt mauve cloud) heavily sedated, thrusting the film into its conceptual and stylistic journey. Claude is a depressive, like so many before and after him, with a tragically fractured mind, and when he doesn’t return to the present after the planned one minute, we experience his looped and edited consciousness reconstruct his cogent memories (albeit in often abbreviated states) of the complete evolution of his relationship with his love Catrine (Olga George-Picot). Resnais’ style takes over as complete and semi-complete memories are buttressed onto one another; sometimes it’s a clear idea that Claude must have had in reconstruction (Claude has the white mice return in the past for example), sometimes it’s a more poetic one of pure dialogue origin and a simple phrase connects to memories months apart (Claude, it should be said is a writer/editor of some promise at one point so he has an affinity for word play). Whole months and years are compressed in Claude’s loop (visually we get the pun of Catrine’s pet at various ages turn from cat to kitten) to eventually we begin glimpsing the reason for Claude’s depression. It seems he’s grown into the state via Catrine’s deep life long depression and sought to end her suffering by painlessly ending her life while she slept peacefully one night. It’s an event never seen, and then later recanted, so it itself becomes another fractured memory, perhaps another creation from a deep, dark mind that never happened (but, it’s important to note I’d think, that the conclusion should be that Claude’s action—real or not—was the result of him seeking to end the suffering of a loved one). Claude’s suspended time loop ends as his drugs eventually wear off, and he’s thrust back in time during his past when he’s attempting suicide. He’s thus thrown into the world with a(nother) fresh gun-shot wound, with this suicide attempt even more dire as he’s lost more blood than the first time. We abruptly leave Claude white as a ghost, unsure of his continued life in the present. If he does survive we trust this is the look of a man probably set to live the rest of his days in a physiological time rehashing hell, producing a science fiction film both about a depressive, and about what it feels to live a life depressed.
_ _ _ _ _ _
Detailing the plot, and many of the films themes you’d guess the work a key inspiration to Michel Gondry’s 2004 Charlie Kaufman penned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a fact later acknowledged by Gondry himself. Jonathan Rosenbaum was the first I’d seen that pointed out the correlation in his positive review of the later film, finding difference mainly in Gondry’s music video honed film apprenticeship versus the Resnais style borne from auteurish unraveling over almost a dozen (full and short) film works by Je t’aime, je t’aime‘s release. Rosenbaum correctly prefers neither to the other, feeling each a work of originality with a creative presentation in accordance to the films respective ideas. The Resnais is clearly less bombastic, and a touch more abstract too; an apt articulation of the synthesis of film grammar and the state of a man, in the words of Jarvis Cocker, “losing the plot, making out that they’re okay, when they’re not.”
The films handling of the past seems an apt metaphor for how the film has entered our cultural consciousness as well. It was created to compete in the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but before it could be projected the festival was cancelled due to the May worker strikes in Paris. The film, probably because of this, never gained the foothold in mainstream press that the inevitable positive reviews that a showing would have garnered (perhaps comparatively would be the fate of Saura’s Peppermint Frappé, which also wasn’t shown at Cannes due to the festival’s early closing, but then was entered into the later Berlin Film Festival and became his first international hit, putting him on the map ever since). Instead of being the last great Resnais work of his canonical 60’s period, it remained little seen (and took him 5 years before he was able to director another film). It wasn’t until it was re-released into theaters during Resnais’ retrospectives after the directors 2014 death that the film has begun to be properly appraised. As if appearing for the first time via its own hermetically sealed time travel device, the forty-six year old film screened itself as freshly born, as sagacious as the day it was made.
(this piece originally appeared as part of the science-fiction Film Preservation Blog-a-thon)