Monday 8 July 2013

Providence [1977]

PROVIDENCE is a French / Swiss drama that was directed by Alain Resnais and originally released in January 1977.  It stars John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner and Elaine Stritch. Written by British playwright David Mercer the film recounts one night in the life of a dying paterfamilias author who, unable to sleep, fantasises scenes from his final novel played out by his relatives.  Resnais is known to English-speaking audiences chiefly for his films HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR  [1958] and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD [1961].  Those two films and PROVIDENCE use unconventional narrative structures to explore themes of memory, identity and the difficulties inherent in human interaction.

A word which crops up a lot when you read about this film is 'scatalogical' and it's certainly true that John Gielgud's character Clive Langham is obsessed with his bodily functions, or perhaps more accurately malfunctions: this must be the only film in which we see Gielgud administer himself a suppository (albeit, thankfully, under the bedsheets).

The king on his throne
It's also true that Langham employs very coarse language to catalogue his agonies (four years before his equally foul-mouthed Oscar-winning performance in ARTHUR [1981]).  But what I was curious about prior to seeing the film was why it had an 18 rating.  It couldn't just be for the swearing, surely?

This kind of thing got you an 18 rating back in the 1977; nowadays you can see it on Channel 4
To clear that point up first, I don't think it is the language, at least not solely.  There's a scene quite early on of an autopsy and it's very graphic so I imagine that's what did it because, at the risk of putting people off, there's certainly no sex or violence in it.  I know it's a minor point but film classification has always been an issue which fascinates me, particularly in cases such as this where it doesn't seem to correspond to the subject matter at all.

David Warner enters the room...
I don't think it would constitute a spoiler to say that for the majority of the film the characters played by Bogarde, Burstyn, Warner and Stritch are constructs of Langham's literary mind.  Similarly the scenes they enact represent passages from Langham's final novel, the one he hopes to complete before he dies.  As the film progresses, Langham rewrites some of these passages meaning we see some scenes played out twice, with the same characters reciting different dialogue, or the same dialogue recited by different characters.  For example, in one sequence Warner's character enters a hotel room; Langham quickly realises he meant someone else to be in this scene, so Warner exits and we cut to Stritch's character entering the room.  This is done deliberately to confuse the viewer; it's a visual representation of both the process of artistic creation and the artist's bodily decay, specifically his mental confusion.

...but it's Elaine Stritch who opens the door to let Dirk Bogarde in.  Note the hotel room has slightly changed: the decor is the same but there's now a staircase down to the door
This sort of metafiction can be very effective and I'm surprised it isn't used more in films.  It abounds in literature of course, notably in the work of John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman and the ending of The Magus) and Muriel Spark (The Comforters).  I suppose that writing isn't seen by movie producers as being a sufficiently cinematic activity and most of them instinctively shy away from anything that might be regarded as being too clever for its own good.  Or at least in the US they do; not so in Europe.

The deliberately artificial backgrounds help sustain the metafiction
I'm also surprised that PROVIDENCE isn't more widely known or even screened.  It's a very satisfying film that is entirely free from the intellectual sterility that some critics perceive in Resnais's work.  Sure, it's initially somewhat confusing as you try to figure out who is who and what the significance is of the bizarre series of encounters which make up the film.  But Resnais makes that pretty clear early on and the game then becomes trying to work out how much truth there is in Langham's fictional representations of his family.

Gielgud approaches WITHNAIL levels of swearing and boozing in this film
PROVIDENCE won a lot of awards when it came out, particularly a great number of Cesars, the French equivalent of Oscars or BAFTAs.  Gielgud said that it was one of only two screen performances (the other being BRIDESHEAD REVISITED [1981]) in which he took any pride.  He's terrific in it, relishing the chance to get his teeth into a proper part.  His swearing, which was used merely for comic effect in ARTHUR, is more significant here, indicating Langham's essential amorality.  Indeed, a phrase which crops up repeatedly is the "moral language" that is sought by Langham's son, who self-denying honourable behaviour is in marked contrast to his father's.

Dirk Bogarde as Claude Langham
Dirk Bogarde is an actor who for a long time I dismissed, based largely on the fact that he was such a fey individual who never seemed to make the kind of films I found interesting.  To me he represented the lightweight nature of British cinema, as compared to the much more breezy Americans.  However, as I've got older and my tastes have changed I've realised that in the second half of his career, Bogarde actually made some very challenging movies, especially in European art house films, and had a refreshing disregard for whether or not he played likeable characters.  I think that started with VICTIM [1961] which seemed a conscious decision to distance himself from the matinee idol roles he had played in the 50s in favour of more complex parts.  It can't have been easy for the homosexual Bogarde to have played straight romantic leads and it's tempting to read VICTIM as being a tacit declaration of who he felt himself to be.  He would have denied that of course, as he continued to deny accusations of homosexuality to the day he died, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.

David Warner (L) on trial for shooting a werewolf (no, really)
David Warner is a favourite of mine, as my recent review of THE BOFORS GUN [1968] testifies.  Ellen Burstyn I've also mentioned recently in TROPIC OF CANCER [1970].  They're both good in this, as is Elaine Stritch who I seem to remember was on British TV a lot in the 80s without ever quite knowing what she was famous for.

Elaine Stritch
Of the supporting cast, Denis Lawson is familiar to millions if not billions of film fans from his roles in the STAR WARS movies.  Peter Arne had small parts in dozens of terrific movies and TV shows, adding depth and colour to the smaller roles such as alongside Warner in Sam Peckinpah's troubling STRAW DOGS [1971]; he was murdered in 1982.  Anna Wing, who was most famous for playing grumpy old Lou Beale in EastEnders, has a very small part as Langham's devoted housekeeper.

Updated on 11/07/2013 to add:  It was announced earlier today that Anna Wing, mentioned in the final sentence of my review of PROVIDENCE, passed away last Sunday at the grand old age of 98.

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