Through a Glass, Bluely

Providence directed by Alain Resnais at the Orson Welles

FROM THE BLUE underworld of guilty fantasy to the idyllic greens and pinks of Providence, where all is forgiven, through a series of stylized, surreal encounters between characters devoid of will and wracked by literary torment--this is where Alain Resnais guides us. In Providence,authorial control--both Resnais's and that of his novelist-narrator Clive Langham (John Gielgud)--is harnessed to the nightmare vision of the unconscious, whose repressed contents spill over with a force that blights efforts at artistic ordering.

Providence begins with a sequence of shots pilfered from Citizen Kane,with the camera leisurely examining the narrator's estate (the "Providence" of the title), and then cutting to a hand dropping a wine glass. Hands, cut off from the bodies they are supposed to serve, recur repeatedly in the film, symbols of creation and destruction, of free action and moral responsibility. The first two-thirds of Providenceis shot through a blue filter, evocative of the dark world of the unconscious, which is also the locale of Langham's latest novel. Here, characters wrestling with their inadequacies starkly confront the twin problems of living and dying. Gielgud is himself dying--in the most undignified way imaginable, his colon having acquired a will of its own--as he composes the novel, his final attempt to resolve his tortured past. Struggling with mortality, he confronts at last his anguish over his wife's suicide, spending a sleepless night ordering his memories to achieve a form of aesthetic absolution.

Very little of this is apparent at first. Meaning in Resnais's film emerges only gradually, slipping out from amidst the debates about fate and free will, imagination and reality, to taunt and finally elude us. In the beginning of the film there is only the blue-green eeriness of the forest, where a man shoots a wolf-man, and then a tight-lipped Dirk Bogarde, as Langham's son Claude, coldly enunciating from the bowels of a courtroom the words which ironically frame the film: "Surely the facts are not in dispute." Resnais's theme is in part the blurring of perception and reality, in part the question posed in the courtroom sequence--should a man have the right to die as he chooses?--and its more important corollary--whether he may choose how to live.

Technically audacious, witty and well-acted, Providencefinally bogs down in the layers of resonance which it so successfully evokes. In exploring the hidden terrors of the individual mind and the artist's efforts to exorcise them through his work, Resnais, for all his technical aplomb, cannot fully transcend the privacy of the nightmare. The effect of his camera work and wordplay is dazzling, but the tension they create is somehow sterile. The agony of Gielgud's musings is intelligible, in the end, only to him.

PROVIDENCE is an inordinately self-conscious film. It is as though Resnais himself, aware of his failings, were trying in advance to counter expected criticisms. "Some say that in my work style replaces feeling," he has one of his characters pronounce. "I say that style is feeling, and its most elegant, economical expression." Style is certainly Resnais's forte. The whole film is an elaborate, often stunning attempt to find cinematic metaphors for states of mind, to link color and narrative mode to psychological perceptions.

One of Resnais's chief devices is the manipulation of point of view. Throughout the first segment, Gielgud's voice directs the jockeying between characters, writing and rewriting the scenes they act. Of all his subjects, Langham's daughter-in-law Sonia (Ellen Burstyn) is most completely a literary creation; deprived of a will of her own, she compounds her self-image from other people's imaginings. Her husband--"a sanctimonious sod," his father calls him--is a model of self-control, afraid of violence "because it reeks of spontaneity," of himself because his own urges to violence must be so vigorously suppressed. He is also the self-conscious seeker of "a moral language" to set against his father's passionate self-indulgence. Dissatisfied with his son's marriage to Sonia, Langham obliges her to pursue Kevin Woodford (David Warner), the defendant in the trial sequence, and couples his son with a mistress (Elaine Stritch) who bears a suspicious resemblance to Claude's mother.

ALREADY two different levels of reality appear at work--the "normal" interaction of these characters and Gielgud's obvious interpolations, his artistic mistakes. Gielgud is perfect here, capturing the petulance of the artist whose creative instincts have gone awry. In one scene, Burstyn unintentionally speaks in Gielgud's voice. In another, Warner's brother, a noted footballer, jogs through a bedroom, where Stritch and Bogarde are conversing, on his way to the bathroom. The funniest of these sequences occurs between Burstyn and Warner. As they sit on a park bench together, Warner exclaims with surprise, "I've got an erection." Burstyn, who has been trying to seduce him all film, is pleased. "It's not mine," he insists. "Then whose is it?" taunts Bogarde, who has suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Resnais and scriptwriter David Mercer are nothing if not clever.

The significance of these artistic miscarriages is dwarfed eventually by the realization that all these characters, all these scenes are fictive. After an hour-and-a-half of stylized dialogue sandwiched between ominous images--of bands of refugees waiting to be dragged away, of a body being disemboweled, of a hand turning over a rock to reveal worms crawling underneath, the filter is removed, and reality--conscious reality--glints forth in images of pastoral purity. We are back in Providence, Gielgud's luxurious estate, framed by equally lush verdure and a glittering lake, and the context of the preceding segments is gradually clarified.

Gielgud is now less an author than a very tired old man in the last throes of illness, waiting for his family to reunite for an outdoor dinner in this picture-postcard setting. When they arrive, they are hardly what we have anticipated. Burstyn and Bogarde are happily married, and Warner, now clearly identified as Gielgud's bastard son, is on good terms with them both. Bogarde remains a seeker after moral language, but the hatred he supposedly bears his father as a result of his mother's death looms largely as a projection of Gielgud's own moral discomfort. "I don't blame you," Bogarde says to his father in reference to the suicide.

THE SHADOW of the earlier part of the film hangs over this segment, clouding our faith in the idyllic surfaces that greet us. Gielgud's torment seems sharply discontinuous with the mildness of this family reunion. And yet a certain continuity is present in seemingly chance words and images, in Bogarde's attack on his father's desire to disembowel people for artistic purposes, in the very preoccupations which mark the dinner conversation. The resonances are different, however, the tone flatter. Where the dialogue was highly abstract and the characters rigidly controlled, there was a sense that Gielgud and Resnais were attempting to penetrate to the very deepest level of reality through the haze of memory and perception. That this reality consists above all in the terrifying consciousness of guilt is the starting discovery of the dinner party sequence.

But Resnais's final message--insofar as it emerges from his frequently brilliant, sometimes uncertain juxtaposition of fragments of dialogue and imagery--is more complex. Gielgud is not merely a victim; as an artist, he does possess some measure of hegemony over his characters. "Nothing is written," he announces ominously to his dinner guests. "We all believe that, don't we?" The title of the film is, in one sense, straightforwardly symbolic: as creators, Gielgud and Resnais share a god-like power to manipulate others, a power contrasting with the usual human helplessness in the face of life's confusions. But Providence's elegiac theme music underlines the irony of the title as well. Ultimately, Gielgud's providential manipulations--and, to a certain extent, Resnais's--are distorted by materials they cannot control. In that sense, the artist is really no freer than the rest of us.