PROVIDENCE: RESNAIS’ PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD MAN

2018-04-30T15:20:10+00:00April 30th, 2018|Categories: CINEMA|Tags: , , |
  • Providence (1977) Dirk Bogarde, and Ellen Burstyn

by Michael M. Riley and James W. Palmer

French director Alain Resnais’ remarkable film, Providence (1977), based upon a screenplay by British dramatist David Mercer, is a powerful but subtle exploration of the creative process. In its concern with the intertwining of past and present and their meeting ground in memory, Providence confirms that Resnais is the filmmaker whose work most closely corresponds to that of literary modernists such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson. Strongly influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson and the novels of Marcel Proust, Resnais’ films repeatedly deal with the problem of time, with modem man’s need to recover the wholeness of experience which his intellect has tended to fragment. For Bergson, the solution to this problem is what he terms intuition, the apprehension of one’s life as an organic whole rather than as separate fragments; for Proust, it is the unity discoverable through art. For both, memory is central, and it is also memory which links Resnais’ films. As John Ward has pointed out, for Resnais, as for Bergson, “memory does more than preserve; it also creates.”1
Before Providence, Resnais’ most significant attempts to deal with this idea are Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Muriel (1963). Although Marienbad’s considerable (even unresolvable) ambiguities have provoked various interpretations, most critics agree that it is an intensely subjective re-creation of the past. The film is an interior monologue (though it is not certain whose); presenting a subjective world that cannot be easily or conclusively referred to the presumably objective one that stands outside it. The uncertain contexts of incidents, the almost surrealistic setting, and the often curiously stylized poses of the characters all belong not to the real world but to die ineluctably private reality of memory, dream, or fantasy. While Muriel, too, deals with the subjective re-creation of the past, it also explicitly addresses the problem of guilt that derives from our conflicting needs to remember and to forget painful experiences. The principal characters in Muriel, like those in most Resnais films, tend to fragment the past, to arrest a single moment upon which they build a fantasy of redemption in one case and exaggerated guilt in the other. The result in both instances is a denial of wholeness. To a degree, this state is present in both Marienbad and Muriel, and, in a different fashion, in Providence, where it is a danger the individual artist must face. In the latter film, however, Resnais extends the themes of its precursors, for the complex pattern of Providence expresses a self-conscious meditation on the unifying possibilities of art.
The reflexive nature of Providence is the more apparent when one recognizes its numerous echoes, if not direct allusions, to Resnais’ earlier films.2 The elaborate camera movements (more nearly reflecting those of the mind than the eye), the complicated structure, and the intricate associations are not mere stylistic similarities; rather, they are the formal embodiment of concepts which have consistently informed the director’s work. Although it would be a mistake to over-emphasize the unity of Resnais’ films, they are nonetheless repeatedly concerned with time, the presence of the past, and the involuntary but suggestive associations between past and present whereby memory forges meaning. In Providence, these concepts find their most mature expression as Resnais affirms his Proustian conviction that through art man discovers the wholeness of experience that otherwise threatens to elude him. 3
But this wholeness is achieved only by exposing and testing the impulse toward fragmentation. The many-sided structure of the film suggests questions rather than answers, paradoxes rather than proofs. The film’s world is one of oppositions—of landscapes, characters, and events both real and imagined—where facts and a deeper truth compete for our attention and assent as they are conjured and probed, guided and pursued during a long anguished night by Clive Langham (John Gielgud), an aging novelist dying of a painful disease. In the awesome vitality of his dark night, Clive remains consistently the artist, his imagination exploiting his dreams and memories of his family ostensibly as material for a novel he is writing but more importantly as a means of giving artistic form to the experience by which, he suspects, he will ultimately be judged. Centering upon the artist, Resnais has created a film where disjuncture, fragmentation, and repetition finally yield to a unity that is at once both aesthetic and moral. « Thus, between Clive’s self-accusation and self-justification, love and cruelty, life and death, art mediates.
In the film’s opening shot, the camera tracks slowly up to the entrance of an estate. There we see a metal plaque bearing the single word “Providence,” which identifies the estate and hints at one of the film’s central thematic concerns. As a dying novelist struggling to write one final work, a testament to and self- examination of his past, Clive possesses a god-like view of the dreams, memories, and fantasies that make up the internal world of his imagination. Whether Clive’s guardianship of his characters and the affairs he directs is that of a wisely benevolent god is, however, open to question until the film’s conclusion. The opening moments of Providence assume additional significance when one recognizes the extended allusion to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Like the entry into Xanadu in the earlier film, the camera pushes past the gate, through the lush foliage, and finally into the house and bedroom where Clive, lying on his deathbed, accidentally knocks a wine glass to the floor. Clive’s glass and Charles Foster Kane’s glass globe both symbolize potential wholeness, a potentially unified personality, and their shattering prefigures the fragmented structure of both films.4 The sustained allusion suggests that Clive, like Kane, is a complex man and that the audience is embarking on a quest to unravel and understand his character, motives, and values. Nevertheless, the structure and meaning of Providence differ substantially and significantly from those of Citizen Kane. The overlapping linear structure of Welles’s film, during which Kane’s story emerges as a result of a newsreel’s public scrutiny and the private judgments of five people who knew him well, is reversed in Providence: Clive, the artist, will write his own apologia, creating five characters based upon his own family. Because Resnais’ subject and the preoccupation of his central character involve the self-conscious creation of a work of art, Providence both incorporates and examines the very process which produced Welles’s classic. Resnais’ film achieves its particular density of meaning by rendering simultaneously the artist’s vision of life and the process whereby he creates that vision.
Both implicity and explicitly, the motif of judgment is central to Providence. At one level it is a dying man’s judgment upon his life as he seeks to confront his past and understand it. At this level, his attitudes are clearly divided—perhaps more so than he realizes—and his questions are not easily resolved. At another, deeper level, however, the process is a great deal more complicated, the issues and values judged more complex. Imprisoned by old age, pain, and approaching death, he looses his imagination upon his immediate family—his bastard son Kevin, an astrophysicist; his legitimate son Claud, an attorney; Claud’s wife Sonia; and Molly, his wife who committed suicide w’hen she learned she was dying of cancer. Clive thereby creates a series of scenes that gradually cohere into a narrative symbolizing the passion, guilt, contradictions, doubts and defiance that converge in his long night. As husband} father, womanizer, Clive Langham will be judged. But he is also an artist, and it becomes increasingly clear that his artistic self dominates, indeed subsumes, all others. In the most explicit statement of this theme, Clive imagines a scene in which Claud (Dirk Bogarde) as prosecutor stands in a courtroom empty of people but filled with stacks of books. Addressing the books as if they were Clive, the son says: “Well, yes, Father. I admire your books very much. I think you’re a very fine writer indeed. And I hope that you die with every nerve end in your body shrieking.” Although Clive would see his art as outliving and thus justifying the actions of his life, whatever their impact upon others, he can Find no ultimate comfort in this view. The issue will emerge again in the last scenes of his narrative; indeed, Clive will consciously speak to it in the birthday celebration that concludes the film.
In an ordinary biographical sense, the man’s experience and the people whose lives have been bound to his have undoubtedly helped shape his art. In the film, their importance resides less in that truism than in their emergence as metaphors for aspects of himself. The man and his work are at once distinct and indivisible, a part of our world and apart from it. Thus, Providence is an act of inquiry—itself a form of judgment—into the nature of the artist and of art itself.
As artist Clive becomes a Prospero-like figure whose tempestuous life and night fantasies ultimately lead to a scene of forgiveness and resolution. But many battles must be fought before that quiet resolution can be achieved. Clive’s art pits the members of his family against one another on a battleground defined by his private demons and secret fears. Although he often seems to take a chilling delight in the roaring war he has set, the spectacle is actually a metaphor for Clive’s incisive and uncompromising insistence upon discovering truth through his art. When at the birthday celebration Claud asks his father about his latest book, he adds: “who are you disemboweling this time?” In one sense the answer is, of course, Clive’s family; but in a more important sense the artist is turning his scalpel upon himself. For the artist, art is a moral language, a concept often referred to in the film. Talking to his father near the end of the film, Claud concedes: “The search for a moral language has to yield to the incomprehensible.” Despite the forgiveness, even absolution implicit in this statement, Clive is moved to confess: “People still get hurt, though, women, family, friends.” Doubtless Clive has achieved less than the final justification he sought, but if questions do not always have answers, if the incomprehensible in human experience refuses to yield, he believes that it can be given an aesthetic order by the language of art. And the eloquence, the potency of that moral language of art is what makes possible the beauty and serenity of the film’s conclusion where reconciliation and unity triumph over conflict and fragmentation.5
The intricate structure of the film juxtaposes Clive’s imagined narrative to those scenes in which he restlessly prowls his darkened , house on the night before his seventy-eighth birthday, endlessly drinking cold white wine, seeking respite from his physical and spiritual pain. Until the birthday celebration, we know his family only as characters he has created, and they and their actions are strictly bound by neither time nor logic. Rather, they are bound by the artist’s whims, impulses, and insights. He creates the situations they inhabit, prompts them, puts words in their mouths, manipulates them, conspicuously savoring his apparent omnipotence. Although his motives are unclear—at times seeming merely capricious, at other times positively malicious—the eerie opening sequence in which the then-unidentified character based upon Kevin (David Warner) commits a mercy killing of a mortally wounded old man who is being transformed into a werewolf-like animal provides an unsettling signal that disturbing mental forces are at work in Clive. Nonetheless, there is a sense of energetic, mordant comedy as Clive exercises his control like an engagingly sardonic mixture of puppeteer, conjuror, magician. Soon enough, however, the puppets assert a will of their own, for while Clive’s control is real, it is not absolute. Increasingly one understands that if the artist has a god-like power to create a world, that world, once created, takes on its own life. True, the artist can intervene, and the work of art submit to his intervention; still it also has its own autonomy.
The first break in Clive’s control occurs just after a trial at which Kevin has been acquitted of murder despite Claud’s aggressive prosecution. In the artist’s created world Claud and Kevin are not brothers. They are more nearly adversaries, a relationship made evident by their roles in the trial, and between them moves Sonia (Ellen Burstyn) to whom Clive seeks to turn his attention. But Sonia eludes him when Dr. Mark Eddington, a witness at the trial (who may be based upon Clive’s own doctor), enters the scene. The novelist’s voice-over narration characterizes Eddington as objectionable and complains of his intrusion. For reasons at first unclear, Clive, unable to banish the doctor, settles for making him Claud’s friend, thereby suggesting his thorough disapproval of both men. Although Eddington’s unwanted presence is confined largely to a few early scenes, he reappears several times in brief scenes showing him dissecting a cadaver. The reasons for Clive’s attitude are thus clarified. For these graphic images, which lack any narrative explanation, are almost certainly visual metaphors for two crucial elements informing Clive’s imaginative quest. Exposing his fear of death and its final indignity, they also express the urgent honesty with which the artist- through his imagination, his art—insists upon probing the last mystery, the final meaning of his own life. This, then, is what drives Clive Langham, the man and artist: he must create his own last testament. In doing so he alternately damns and defends himself, for the phantoms of his mind assume multiple, subtly shifting personae symbolically prosecuting and defending the actions and values of his life and work.
Early in the film Clive states: “It will all have to be rewritten and so shall time.” At first this may seem only a reflection of his need to justify or defend, but while there may be some truth to this, it is too simple an explanation. The deeper truth is that the artist inevitably discovers meaning and gives worth to what he creates by the aesthetic choices he makes. The process may be profoundly serious, yet it is not necessarily solemn. The physical pain that racks his body and the fear and uncertainty that lay siege to his mind never completely overwhelm the fierce exuberance with which he dissects himself and his family. The tension between the artist’s creation of his characters and the limits of his ability to control them finds an analogue in the tension between parents and children. Thus, Clive’s attempt to rewrite time gives aesthetic form to his relationships with his family. He judges them and anticipates their judgments of him with wit, irony, and a notable lack of sentimentality.
Clive assigns to Claud a cold, unemotional orderliness, making him a stem if oddly self-indulgent moralist who denounces his father and waits impatiently for his death. Kevin, on the other hand, is a man gentle to the point of passivity, concerned with the disorienting experiences of astronauts and sensitive to the possibility of a new kind of poetry appropriate to a technological age. Sonia is beautiful, elegant, and frustrated, bitter at Claud for marrying her when she was only seventeen and turning her into “a fucking construction,” making her pass “from childhood more or less to wifehood without the tiresome inconvenience of a developing personality in between.” Intrigued by Kevin, Sonia is attracted to him because he is strikingly different from her husband. Yet her open invitation to Kevin remains not so much unanswered as unrecognized. However forceful, even insistent in her actions and speech, she is somehow ineffectual. Her resentment of Claud for depriving her of an identity only drives her to seek definition through another man, one whose otherworldliness makes him even less likely to satisfy her needs. The result is in effect a strange menage-a-trois whose participants seem only obliquely related and whose passion seems confined to verbal sparring. Having created these characters and presided over this stage of their relationships, Clive abruptly introduces a new character who not only compli­cates their narrative but is herself perhaps the most complicated child of his imagination. She is Helen Wiener (Elaine Stritch), Claud’s mistress, “an intellectual journalist.” Playfully, even a bit maliciously, he chooses her from a group of imagined passengers disembarking from an airliner, passing over a younger, more beautiful girl whom he suggests he shall save for his own private pleasure because she is too good for Claud. Helen is, nonetheless, a stylishly attractive older woman, and her role soon proves to be far more than a whim on Clive’s part. As Claud’s mistress she is pure invention, but she claims her significant place because Clive has created her from Claud’s mother Molly, the wife whose suicide still haunts and accuses the dying man. With the introduction of Helen/Molly and of the created Kevin’s footballer brother (whose incongruous jogging in and out of various scenes comically emphasizes the limits of an artist’s control), Clive has completed his cast of characters. In one sense or another, he is the parent of each, and these children of his body and his imagination both obey and deny his will as they enact a drama at once unpredictable and inevitable.
As an artist Clive explores the possibilities of his characters. Moreover, the landscape of the artist’s imagination assumes a significance not unlike that of a character in his narrative. For instance, the interior of Claud’s home is marked by a modish modernity whose sterile formality mirrors the character’s coldness and the environment in which Sonia feels imprisoned. Similarly, the remembered and recreated summer house (about which Helen says: ‘‘Nothing can compare with the memories of childhood”) is a curious mixture of the realistic and the fanciful. In this setting, where both Claud and Kevin encounter the Helen/Molly character, waves crash before an obviously painted backdrop of the sea. The dark woods of the Film’s opening sequence and of the scenes where Fust Kevin and later Claud commit their killings, one merciful and the other vengeful, unmistakably suggest the hunt, the primitive combat in which death will be the certain victor. Its frightening darkness and unknown terrain, expressing fears and questions which will not be denied, seem capable of overwhelming Clive. Nevertheless, they do not finally dominate, for with characteristic resilience and humor he interjects a playful visual pun by showing Claud, on his way to the first rendezvous with Helen, journeying through the streets of an unidentified city which in part appears to be Providence, Rhode Island.
In such settings he invents scenes and then re-invents or re-arranges them, steadily revealing Claud and Kevin as opposing sides of his own personality and character. Kevin, compassionate enough to perform a mercy killing, represents Clive’s desire to be freed from the ignoble physical decay that reduces the man to an animal, killing him painfully but slowly, robbing the body of style and the entire man of dignity. Sensitive to beauty but not pursuing it lasciviously, Kevin is dismissed by Claud as a man obviously filled with “inner peace,” which, Claud scornfully observes, “usually implies no powers of rational thinking whatsoever.” But if Kevin’s belief stated during the trial that “people should be allowed to die the way they choose” and his simple, uncomplicated response to life’s diversity— “I’m quite easy in most situations”—belong to Clive’s own character, so too does Claud’s disdainful judgment of Kevin. For the two characters constitute simultaneously modes of both accusation and defense belonging to the artist’s divided, even paradoxical nature. In purely human terms Claud’s vigorous denunciation of his father represents Clive’s sense that his son justifiably disapproves of him. Whether the disapproval is actually felt—indeed the real Claud rejects the notion during the final birthday celebration—it is most deeply embedded in the circumstances of Clive’s relationship with Molly and her death. In Clive’s narrative the Helen/Molly figure, in her role as Claud’s mistress, tells Claud as soon as he joins her for the first time that she is dying. He is indifferent to this news, only remarking irritably that he may have to kill Kevin because of Sonia’s interest in him. Perhaps Clive’s actual response to the news of Molly’s fatal illness was not so cold or callous as this, but the original event forces itself repeatedly into his mind. (Interestingly, the film’s only conventional flashback renders the moment when Clive found Molly’s body, her wrists slashed, lying in a bathtub full of bloody water; it is also the only moment in his past he cannot rewrite.) This insistent aspect of the invented narrative reflects its central importance to Clive.
Talking to Sonia at the birthday celebration, Clive says: “I disapprove of death. One begins to sniff the temptation to believe in something.” Such a temptation suggests a religious faith; still, though he goes on to speak to Sonia about believing in God, it seems clear that Clive’s musings do not define his position but rather are part of his (and the film’s) larger meditation upon death. Indeed, the frequent sounds of battle and images of armed troops who round up the aged (present in so many scenes) and commit them to concentration camp enclosures—characterized by Clive as de rigueur symbols of fear—dramatize the extent to which he can neither accept nor wholly deny “the dying of the light.” Although Clive regards Molly’s suicide as “excessive,” the extent to which it represents an option is evident in the scene where Kevin is arrested for hanging a banner which restates his view regarding a man’s right to choose how he dies. If suicide remains an option, Clive finally will not choose it, for as man and artist he has celebrated life with an unrestrained appetite far more compelling than quiet reverence cloaked in a public respectability at odds with his own nature. He once remarks: “I may not know how to die, but at least I knew how to live.” It is no empty boast. Not one to deny life’s physical pleasures, whatever his excesses, he does not even at the end capitulate to regret. His bitter rage at the disease which wastes him (portrayed in a scene where battle sounds metaphorically represent the disease attacking his body) cannot displace his surprised pleasure at an unexpected erection in the middle of the night. A life-affirming comic moment, it asserts not so much his persistent lust as his irresistable vitality.
As the night draws to a close and with it Clive’s narrative, the irony and comedy of his vision move toward a courageous confrontation with the questions which have been implicit since the beginning. The created characters of Claud and Kevin begin a shift in personae which reaches its climax in two scenes. In the first scene Kevin approaches Claud (who now seems to represent Clive) on a shooting range and bitterly asks him:“If you didn’t love my mother, at least you needn’t have destroyed her. I mean, did you create hell all those years just to have something to write about?” This accusation has finally forced itself into the open, and « it is followed by a sequence where radical shifts in space and time coincide with Claud’s murderous pursuit of Kevin. Claud, now the hunter, shoots the metamorphosing Kevin just as Kevin first killed the old man at the beginning of the film. Claud, who addresses Kevin as if the latter were now Clive, points a gun at him and accuses him of willfully making Molly suffer. Claud is unmoved when the Kevin/Clive figure says quietly: “In my own curious fashion, I think I’ve always loved you.” Declaring himself his mother’s witness, Claud shoots the figure, half-man /half-animal, half-Kevin/half-Clive.
In this strange story artist and man have been joined in voicing the disturbing questions which arise from both aspects of Clive Langham’s life. The story which belongs solely to Clive’s imagination provides a limited answer to those questions. Only in the final scenes of the birthday celebration are the limitations exposed and transcended.
Beyond guilt or innocence, malice or generosity, Clive has also sought to confront love and give it expression, however obliquely. Throughout the night his attitude toward love has seemed at best tentative, at worst cynical, but finally its claims are unavoidable, their place in the film pervasive. This is expressed in one of the dominant images in the film, the white wine that the characters drink in almost every scene. Clive always has a bottle of white wine at his bedside, and the key to his having the Claud, Sonia, Kevin, and Helen of his fantasies drink that same wine is found in something that Helen says of Claud: “Anyone who cares for Claud should always make sure to have white wine. When you love someone, you’re sensitive to their tastes. It’s rarely mutual, and that’s because one is rarely loved.” Since all of these characters are Clive’s counterparts, the insistence on white wine suggests his need and desire to love and be loved by his family.
Clive’s incessant night-drinking has other, broader implications. The wine is a kind of pain-killer and indicates the self-indulgent and sensuous side of his character. It also represents the elixir of life, the Dionysian inspiration of the artist, and his acknowledgement of the unconscious, nonrational, even irrational impulses which cannot and should not be denied by anyone seeking to integrate the rational and emotional sides of the human personality. Even though his aging, diseased body seems to thwart his Dionysian impulses, Clive nonetheless celebrates the sensual life, asserting in one of his night monologues: “I regret nothing. . .I love and respect the human body, the hard muscle, the fine skin.” But like Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach, Clive recognizes the tension between his Apollonian and Dionysian sides, and the personalities he projects onto his fantasy characters, particularly Claud and Kevin, reflect this struggle. The character that Clive ascribes to Claud points to the dangers of a one-sided Apollonian personality. As a lawyer Claud is logical, rational, controlled and judgmental, but he is also seemingly cold, repressed, incapable of feeling or suffering anything. He does not even morally disdain violence; he» simply disapproves of it because (as he states in an epigrammatic phrase echoing Clive’s sharp humor) “it reeks of spontaneity.” And yet, however repressed, Claud is not without an unconscious mind as Clive reveals when he arranges for the Helen/Molly character to be Claud’s mistress. Clive’s witty comment, when he brings Claud together with Helen, tells all: “She looks like his mother. The boy must have an unconscious mind, just like everybody else.”
Clive’s fantasies apparently allow for the eruption of the Dionysian forces because of the control he commands as an artist. To the extent that he confronts them during the night, he seems to do so largely by irony or self-mocking humor. This is, however, misleading, for Molly is perhaps the crucial character in his narrative. Although Clive’s complicated mixture of guilt and resentment at her suicide suggests that she belongs to the Apollonian side of his character and experience, she is also the embodiment of the Dionysian. If her suicide, joined with Clive’s memories of his mistreatment of her, makes her now seem an accuser, Molly is nonetheless the figure to whom he repeatedly turns, speaking to her again and again with love, intimacy, and an unmistakably sensual longing.6 In a reverie that poignantly invokes a moment centering on Molly and the family’s summers together at Cap Ferrat, Clive says: “Ah, Molly, where are you? She always had the wine chilled to exactly the right temperature, prawns red in their shells—yes, I see her laughing there on the terrace in the sun.” Idyllic as it is, the memory dwells upon sensuous details and is echoed in a subsequent moment when Clive speaks to her. Gripped by pain and fear, Clive wraps himself in his sheets (reminding one of the shrouds that the Claud of his narrative bitterly says Clive should be ordering rather than shirts), looks at her small oval photograph beside his bed, and says: “Ah, Molly, your breasts. A biological triumph! Ditto the thighs and the little tuft of hair so snug between. Bless you.” Her name, the setting, and Clive’s tribute to her sexuality, all recall the Molly Bloom of Joyce’s Ulysses. Despite the differences between the two women, Clive’s Molly, like Joyce’s, seems to be a kind of muse who summoned a deeply Dionysian response. Thus, her suicide in the face of incurable cancer paradoxically affirmed life by insisting that death be on her own terms.
However divided Clive’s response to all this, the final reconciliation is foreshadowed by his tender memories of Molly and the family’s summers together. Claud too will recall those days when the family was together for the longest time, and he will share this memory with his father at the birthday celebration. The words of Clive’s memories, lyrical and rich in meaning, offer a balance between the Dionysian and Apollonian life. Molly, the sun, the perfectly chilled wine, the prawns in their red shells, all suggest the order, beauty, and harmony of a ritual or communal moment.
The conclusion of Providence marks a radical shift in style and tone which calls into question all that precedes it. In a sunny pastoral setting as the family gathers for Clive’s birthday, what we learn of the characters seems largely to contradict the created personalities Clive has ascribed to them. To be sure, unresolved tensions still exist, particularly between Clive and Claud, and the conflicts that produced Clive’s fantasies are still in evidence in his attitude toward Molly’s death and in his occasionally barbed, hurtful remarks directed at Claud.
Clive, an irrascibly self-indulgent, egotistical figure, can tum all things to himself, even seeing Claud and Sonia as a bit unreal, or perhaps less real to him than his own imagined characters. Watching Claud and Sonia embrace, Clive pronounces that such a display of affection is for his benefit. Kevin is there to correct him, however, by saying: “I think it’s for theirs.” In fact, one may see the ending as consonant with Clive’s personality: he is still trying to control events as he does in his fantasies, still trying to make things come out the way he wants. Nonetheless, standing as the film’s conclusion, the birthday celebration seems most forcefully to constitute an eloquent working out of Clive’s own aesthetic principles, form and feeling both refining and intensifying the human drama. Reflecting on his art during his long night, Clive says: “Of course, it’s been said about my work that the search for style has often resulted in a want of feeling. . . . However, I’d put it another way. I’d say that style is feeling, its most elegant and economic expression.” Of course style and feeling must be in equilibrium, for a too-consciously contrived style is the counterpart of the merely clever rhetorical flourishes that characterize Claud as the cool prosecutor in Clive’s imagination. But the real Claud proves far different, admitting to his father that he doesn’t know if his values are correct or incorrect, that “They’re just the moral structures by which I can live.” As Claud enumerates his values—“honesty, scrupulousness, discrimination, protectiveness, tenderness, aversion to violence and the conscious practice of terror”—he unknowingly offers a concise critique of much of the violence that permeates Clive’s night fantasy. Perhaps Clive senses the aptness of Claud’s comments. In any case Clive cannot resist indicting his son’s values, which he says confuse “private virtue with public justice.” Nevertheless, Claud transcends personal injury and pettiness, showing his own sense of grace, style, and strength of character by offering a simple, sincere toast: “To my father on his seventy-eighth birthday. Live long, Father.” Clive will soon reciprocate with an equally graceful act of genuine feeling.
The contrast between Clive’s bitter and often strident fantasy characters and the gentler personalities of his actual family is clear as soon the children arrive. Joining the old man who awaits them sitting in a lounge chair, surrounded by the lush summer landscape, with the old mansion in the background, Sonia and Claud greet Clive affectionately, touching and kissing him. After some teasing about presents, they offer their gifts, each object carrying its own’ special significance.
Sonia gives Clive an old hunting knife that supposedly belonged to Ernest Hemingway. Knives have been a prominent visual motif throughout Clive’s fantasies: for instance, Sonia and Claud wield knives during their arguments in the kitchen scenes. Of course the gift is appropriate for a man who, during his night visions, has been dissecting his own life and art. Although he cannot resist making a disparaging remark about what he considers Hemingway’s inflated reputation, Clive has shown his own Hemingway-like concern for a masculine vitality, courage and grace, as well as a demand for style and economy that make the gift a genuinely appropriate one.
Claud’s present, a new book entitled The Scales of Time written by one of Clive’s colleague-competitors, also has its ramifications.? Despite Clive’s casual comment on his son’s maladroit gift-giving, a remark which wounds Claud, the old man still considers using the title of the book for his own novel—as well he might, since “The Scales of Time” characterizes Clive’s quest by suggesting both the measurement and judgment of past, present, and future. When Kevin arrives with his gift, an old Victorian spy glass, he offers it to Clive knowing that the novelist will appreciate its fine craftsmanship. Clive does admire the gift and playfully extends the spy glass, holding it like a large phallus, while he reminisces about a woman he once knew who had “tits like a spiral nebula.” Since we have seen Clive step on and smash his eyeglasses during the night, this gift from his astrophysicist bastard son may hint at Clive’s capacity, despite his failing eyesight, for seeing further and deeper into the nature of things and people than ever before. Of course, Clive’s voyeuristic impulses, so evident in the fantasy scenes, make the spy class an apt gift.
The lavish banquet follows, and despite political arguments and Clive’s cutting remark on what he considers the naive or hypocritical pronouncement of Claud’s bourgeois values, we are, nonetheless, witnessing a communion signified by the red wine that the characters drink for the first time. With a sense of hard-earned survival, Clive has come to accept and in some cases reconcile the contradictions and oppositions embodied in his life as man and artist. In response to Claud’s toast wishing him a long life, Clive in turn stands to toast his children, saying: “I love you all very much. I shall continue to refuse to die. Besides, I have a book to finish. To all of you, my dears, to your future. Nothing is written. We all believe that, don’t we?” The comment implies a rejection of predestination or determinism and suggests that the possibility of a unified vision exists only when we grant freedom to ourselves and to our creations, be they our real or imagined children. In any case, the lines are intentionally ambiguous and can refer variously to fate, providence, and Clive’s novel which exists, so far as we know, only in his head (or in ours as the film) or as sketchy notes made in the darkest hours of the night.
The rich implications of the film’s final scene are expressed visually when the camera cranes up and away from the banquet and starts a slow-paced, serene 360 degree pan shot showing us the expansive view of the green hills and meadows of the countryside until the camera once again comes to rest on the celebrants who have finished their feast. Unlike the end of Citizen Kane where a long, linear crane shot passes over the collected artifacts of Charles Foster Kane, conveying the wasted life of a powerful, wealthy, but finally loveless man, the crane shot in Resnais’ film conveys the passage of time. More importantly, it reaffirms and unifies art, life, nature, and family in one encompassing circle.
These two shots function similarly as metaphors, their very different but equally emphatic movements suggesting more summation than solution to the complex views of both films* central characters. If Kane remained to the end mysterious, impenetrable, and fragmented, Resnais’ Clive, the artist, can now with understanding exercise a providential guardianship over his characters as he makes a final request at the family’s leave-taking. Exerting control over his own intense feelings, Clive looks at his children and says: “One last thing. After this strange and marvelous afternoon—Sonia, Claud, Kevin—just leave. Now, please. With neither kiss nor touch. With my blessing.” Honoring Clive’s call for restraint, and under the grace of his benediction, the three children make their ceremonial departure, each pausing on the steps of the old mansion for a last look at Clive, alone at the table.8 After this most generous and dignified moment, this consummate expression and proof of style as feeling, Clive rises slowly from his chair and walks alone back into the time-worn mansion.
But before he returns to the house, Clive, now sitting alone at the table, has a last word, eloquent in its simplicity, a brief toast to himself and to the endurance of the human spirit: “I think there’s time for just one more.” The line refers to the last glass of red wine that he pours for himself, but it is also Clive’s commitment to one more painful night of terror and sweet fantasy. With dignity and courage in the face of death, the artist insists on celebrating life.

Michael M. Riley Claremont Men’s College
James W. Palmer University of Colorado

NOTES

1. Alain Resnais, or the Theme of Time, The Cinema World Series (New York: Doubleday, 1968), p. 14. Ward’s book, which was published before Resnais made Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime (1968), Stavisky (1974), and Providence, is an excellent study, particularly valuable for its discussion of the influence of Bergson. A more recent book is John Francis Kreidl, Alain Resnais (Boston: Twayne, 1978), which discusses all of the director’s feature films to date. Although Kreidl provides useful background information on Resnais, his critical analysis of individual films is sometimes erratic or, as in the case of Providence, even eccentric. For example, Kreidl terms Providence “a master­piece of comic timing,” adding that “Resnais has learned his Jerry Lewis well.” The best single discussion of the film is Marsha Kinder, “The Art of Dreaming in Three Women and Providence: Structures of the Self,” Film Quarterly, 31 (Fall 1977), 10-18. See also Bruce F. Kawin, Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and First-Person Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978) for an original and highly suggestive study of narration in Resnais’ films, and James Monaco Alain Resnais (New York: Oxford, 1979) for an interpretation of Providence as comedy.

2. In addition to echoing Resnais’ own previous films, Providence recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972). The relationship between these films is principally evident in parallel themes and similar images. Persona deals with uncertain or interchanging identities and the masks people wear to define or obscure identity; it also examines the relationship of sickness and health, art and life. Cries and Whispers incorporates a vivid, masterfully controlled use of color, an extended portrayal of physical suffering followed by a pastoral interlude, and an examination of the relationship of suffering to insight. All of these aspects of both Bergman films are recalled or suggested by Apart from such relatively clear connections, Providence elicits much more general associations with such diverse works of literature as Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For example, Joyce’s examination of the young artist and his art and Shakespeare’s tale of Prospero and his magical powers have their counterparts in the film’s complex study of a writer and the implications of his power to create his life’s meaning through his writings.

3. In David Mercer, Resnais found a collaborator who has similar views and thematic interests, particularly regarding the irrevocable hold of the past upon the present. For discussions of Mercer, see John Russell Taylor, “David Mercer,” in his The Second Wave (New York: Hill and Wang, 1971), pp. 36-58, and C.W. E. Bigsby, “David Mercer,” Contemporary Dramatists, James Vinson (London: St. James, and New York: St. Martin’s, 1973), pp. 534-537. Bigsby calls attention to the dramatist’s interest in the “power to evoke fantasy and dream, to jump backwards in time, to reveal the internal tensions and wanderings of the mind” (p. 535). Mercer’s screenplay, which is both witty and eloquent, suggests the importance which Resnais places on language. A. Alvarez, “Alain Resnais—The Man Who Makes Movies of the Mind,” New York Times, 10 Oct. 1976, Sec. D, pp. 17-18, quotes the director during the making of Providence, his first film in English: “I like to feel the text has a particular resonance, a style. I am not interested in hearing absolutely commonplace dialogue. When I see a Shakespeare play, I don’t say, Tt’s a pity it is not written more simply, more clearly.* I like it as it is. So I must have a tendency to believe that it’s a good thing in cinema if the language is as deliberate and stylish as Shakespeare’s.” Both Ward and Kreidl discuss Resnais’ relationship to his collaborators, which is especially significant because he has made his films from screenplays by such novelists and playwrights as Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol, and Mercei^all important literary figures in their own right. Despite the diverse styles and concerns of these writers, Resnais has created films which bear the stamp of his own artistic personality.

4. See Robert L. Carringer, “Rosebud, Dead or Alive: Narrative and Symbolic Structure in Citizen Kane,” PMLAt 91 (1976), 185-193, for a discussion of the significance of the glass globe in Welles’s film. Carringer observes: “The little glass globe (not Rosebud) is the film’s central symbol. A mediating symbol of inner and outer, of subjective and objective, it stands.. .(for] the psychic wholeness of Kane. . . .”

5. Taylor quotes Mercer as saying: “I now see drama not as a theater of ideas in which questions can be posed and conclusions reached, but as a sort of ritual, synthesizing disparate and contradictory elements, accepting that personalities are fragmented, that truths are infinitely ambiguous, and yet binding together all these centripetal elements of the universe so that they are held suspended, mysteriously bound by the very tensions that always threaten to tear them apart” (p. 47).

6. Clive’s ambivalent feelings toward the Molly of his memories find their parallel in other Resnais films. The obsession with a lost love that is recollected (and perhaps idealized) is a characteristic shared by X in Last Year at Marienbad, the woman from Nevers in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), and Helene in All of these central figures are defined, in part, by some past romantic relationship which cannot be forgotten.

7. Reviewing Providence in Film Quarterly, 30 (Summer 1977), 21-24, Gerald Weales notes that the author’s name, Kelvin, is the same as that of a character in several of Mercer’s plays, and even suggests that the photograph on the book’s dust jacket in the film may be of Mercer himself.

8. The kind of general association between Providence and other works described in Note 2 is reflected here in the way this scene evokes recollections of The Tempest. Clive’s dismissal of his family (the actors in his fantasies) is parallel to Prospero’s words on art, time and human mortality:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (IV. i. 148-158)

Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 4 (1981), pp.

RELATED POSTS

Leave A Comment