In Alain Resnais' dizzying sci-fi headscrambler Je t'aime, je t'aime, the meaning's in the cuts, not the content 

Of Mice and Memory

Of Mice and Memory

The celebrated and recently deceased French filmmaker Alain Resnais' 1968 feature Je t'aime, je t'aime, traveling the U.S. in a lovingly restored 35mm print, is ostensibly a science fiction film. But as Jonathan Rosenbaum argued in an otherwise favorable review, the movie's time-travel mechanics are clumsy and illogical. In a post-production interview, the director casually noted that his work "is not a science fiction film, of course." In fact, the whole notion of time travel is gently mocked in Je t'aime's opening sequences. Like its arthouse cousins La Jetée and Solaris, Resnais' film employs genre trappings to unpack the inner workings of human memory — and by extension, the medium itself.

The film opens in a bare hospital setting where seemingly interchangeable suited figures discuss the fate of a failed suicide. As it turns out, a man with little interest in living qualifies as an ideal candidate for time travel. The opening shots are spare; the palette muted and narrow; dialogue flat and to the point. Yet the editing is clipped and vaguely unsettling, compelling the viewer onward. Soon we meet Claude Ridder (played by Claude Rich), a man seemingly untethered from life — few possessions, no interest in home, at one point even muttering, "I'm not alive." Relocated to an undistinguished research compound, he views the purposeful activity around him with disaffected bemusement and proves equally blasé when confronted with the faintly absurd time machine, a bloated, milky-white tuber.

As a Greek chorus of scientists explains, Ridder will be sent back in time one year for a minute. After settling into the device's formless recliner, the subject soon finds himself snorkeling while on vacation, sounds and images distorted by the engulfing water. The scene repeats several times, and then he begins to hopscotch through his past — waiting for a streetcar, working as a clerk, meeting his future wife Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), falling in love, arguing, reconciling. The experiment has gone awry; Ridder has become unstuck in time. Just as the film's title ("I love you, I love you") suggests romantic obsession, it also underscores how repetition alters meaning. Each return to the seaside Riviera idyll proves more poignant, while emphasizing how charged an entry point the moment was for Ridder.

In her famous dismantling of European art cinema, "The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties," Pauline Kael posits Resnais' 1961 masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad as the prime offender. Its chronologically disjointed narrative is dismissed as a stylish puzzle without solution, as if meaning alone — not feeling, not thought, not stimulation — were film's primary (if not sole) function. A structural and thematic companion piece to Marienbad, Je t'aime, with its familiar plot devices and doomed romance, renders Resnais' aims more explicit: emotional coherence and resonance as replacements for the standard connective tissue of cinematic storytelling. His deliberately flat visual style foregrounds the meaning between scenes; the layering of discrete memory bits creates a mosaic that's not wholly definable but still understood.

And of course, those bits aren't entirely discrete. Resnais claimed he edited his memory piece intuitively, but at some point during the experiment it seems apparent that Ridder — or rather his subconscious — has seized control. Jumps increasingly focus on key moments surrounding a central critical event. Ridder has in effect become a time detective, not so much searching for a solution but rather equanimity concerning Catrine's crippling melancholia. And in the process of his investigations, memory proves as much constructive as fixed. Surrealist touches begin to color his jumps — a companion in a fish mask; a courier delivering a large box of wood chips; his fellow time traveler, a mouse, frolicking on a beach — while the underwater gurglings of his entry point intrude upon unrelated scenes.

Given the vaguely womb-like appearance of the time machine, this increasingly weighted first memory suggests a kind of rebirth. Manohla Dargis, in her incisive appreciation of the restoration, also likens the device to an "enormous, disembodied heart," and one might add a brain — a symbolic union of the heart/head divide central to much of Resnais' work. The main charge against his justly lauded early features is that they're overly cerebral, little more than overworked intellectual play. But tellingly, he titled his affecting late-career adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn's Private Fears in Public Places simply Coeurs (Hearts). Ultimately, no matter what sense the viewer makes of Ridder's journeys, the experience leaves a lasting emotional impression. How else could the film's final freeze, a seeming non sequitur of a mouse struggling to escape a glass dome, serve as a haunting and fitting summation of Je T'Aime's prior 90 minutes?




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