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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

Mise-en-scene

When films speak French

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Paris in spring is a place for romance, but what of the City of Light in the dark of winter? Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places) is a bittersweet romance of overlapping couples and couplings, a drama flecked with humor. Snow is always falling outside and everyone’s overcoat is powdered in white. The action takes place entirely indoors.

Private Fears in Public Places will be shown at 9:30 p.m., Feb. 8, and 2:30 p.m., Feb. 9, as part of the 2008 Festival of Films in French. The annual festival runs Feb. 8-17 at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre. The director of Private Fears, Alain Resnais, is considered one of the great figures to emerge from the French New Wave movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Perhaps more than any of his colleagues, he tested the boundaries of cinema with such hallmarks of ambiguity as Hiroshima mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

With their complex construction of flashbacks and fusion of past and present, memory and subjectivity, almost anything he directed afterward has been accessible, even conventional, by contrast. Private Fears is arranged like a sequence of theater set pieces in the apartments, workplaces and meeting places of its characters. The stylish mise-en-scene is important, but conversation is king.

Private Fears concerns the distances and connections between an ensemble of essentially lonely people moving quietly in overlapping circles, like a Robert Altman cast in soft shoes. There is the professional woman, frustrated by her layabout fiance. There is the elderly real estate agent wondering erotically about the devoutly Catholic receptionist in his office. He lives with his much younger sister who waits in cafes for the Internet blind dates that seldom present themselves. There is the hotel bartender, listening to the layabout fiance with composed attention, who hires the receptionist as an evening caregiver for his father, who has slipped into hostile senility.

Resnais has shaped an elegant two hours of theater on film, a series of character sketches drawn with hope but given no resolution. The Festival of Films in French isn’t only about lovelorn Parisians, but also showcases a variety of movies from the Frenchspeaking world. Included are the fast-paced historical drama Maurice Richard: The Rocket, about a National Hockey League star from Quebec who escaped poverty by mastering the rough sport (7 p.m., Feb. 8, and 9 p.m., Feb. 9); an evening of New French Experimental Cinema (7 p.m., Feb. 12); Bamako, an indictment of World Bank policies in Africa (7 p.m., Feb. 16, and 5:30 p.m., Feb. 17); and classics such as Belle de jour (5 p.m. Feb. 9 and Feb. 10).
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