FILM / Death by passive smoking: A butterfly stamping causes electrical storms on Jupiter, or at least a housewife's craving for a cigarette, indulged or resisted, makes possible or precludes her home-help's career as a journalist

Adam Mars-Jones
Thursday 15 September 1994 23:02

Smoking / No Smoking (PG)

Director: Alain Resnais (Fr)

, the new pair of films made by Alain Resnais from a set of plays by Alan Ayckbourn, is a thrilling idea, promising to reconcile or swirl piquantly together a number of opposites: cinema and theatre, French and English (international and insular, if you prefer), avant-garde and mainstream, philosophy and anecdote. The substantial slabs of cinema that result, though - running a little under five hours in total - contain remarkably little that is thrilling, or more than averagely entertaining. Thanks to the director's tender fidelity, the French element consistently defers to the English, and the result is a hollow triumph for the home team.

Each film begins with a Yorkshire housewife being tempted to smoke. If she lights up, one set of consequences is set in train; if she resists, another. There are further forks in the path, so that we are offered by the end of both films 12 conclusions involving nine characters, all played by two actors (Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi).

The actors give wonderfully detailed performances, and claim to have studied small-town Yorkshire body-language, which only makes the surrealism of their interpretations the more delicate. The elusive alienness of English culture persists in a number of sweetly clanging moments: names like Coombes and Hepplewick given Gallic intonations, a discussion of whether to lay little broken flagstones in the garden (that's crazy paving to you) Azema eating toast in a style that is as Yorkshire as foie gras, tearing little pieces from an unbuttered slice and marmalading them individually with a spoon.

Ayckbourn acknowledges the influence on his work of J B Priestley's Time plays, but there is plenty of cinematic precedent too. The category of Time film would include an extraordinary range of productions, from It's a Wonderful Life to A Matter of Life and Death and the two Terminators. Resnais's earlier films have contained similar themes, with both Last Year as Marienbad and Providence involving the working out of possible relationships between a fixed set of characters.

What is disappointing is a strange passivity on the director's part. Every film adaptation from another medium is an involuntary act of criticism, but Resnais goes with the grain of the material in a way that is positively perverse. Why adapt if you aren't making a contribution? In this respect a film like Altman's Short Cuts is exemplary, risking travesty by providing a new structure, but not pretending that there can be such a thing as an innocent translation, a neutral transformation. Resnais wants to serve the wine without opening the bottle.

There was a time when he seemed obsessively interested in film language, and the way images generate meanings. In Smoking / No Smoking his style is discreet or even bland. There's a subjective shot in the opening sequence shared by both films - the cigarette packet as seen by Celia Teasdale - but that's your lot. At one potentially crucial moment in Smoking the camera strays oddly away from Celia's face (an echo of the critical point in Resnais' Melo), but the moment comes to nothing. In the director's emotional absence, it is left to John Pattison's music to inform us about what we are meant to be feeling.

Just because you don't invoke the possibilities of film, that doesn't mean that the conventions of theatre remain in place. Jacques Saulnier's sets would be impressively naturalistic in the theatre - the way the sea mist gathers at one point in No Smoking would make any stage manager proud - but on screen they occupy a no man's land, offering an obviously illusory world without soliciting our complicity.

The concepts offstage and offscreen are very different, in a way that affects the doubling of characters in Smoking/ No Smoking. Stage conventions are established for once and for all, but the mobility of the camera means that what is off- screen is constantly being renegotiated. The conventions of Smoking / No Smoking become wearing rather than natural- seeming over time. Resnais doesn't cheat, in the sense of having two characters of the same gender in the same shot or apparently in the same scene, but he does cheat by allowing changeovers that would be impossibly quick in the theatre. He cheats without having anything to show for his cheating. Theatrical illusion lapses, but nothing replaces it.

By laying Ayckbourn's world in front of us with such discretion and suavity, Resnais actually makes it look inadequate. Errors of continuity or consistency are particularly damaging to so self-consciously clever a structure. Why, during Joe Hepplewick's funeral, is his headstone already in place in the churchyard? Why, in a version of reality where he dies in 1991 rather than 1993, is he still described as being 77 years old? In a sequence early in Smoking, Joe's son Lionel shows an unexpected love and knowledge of late-Romantic classical music. This is highly effective at the time, but makes it preposterous later on that he should so bitterly denounce his girlfriend's attempt to explore her interest in literature (itself absurdly telescoped, so that five lessons are enough to turn her into a model student and to change her life).

The core notion of Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges (from which Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui have derived the screenplays, more by pruning than elaboration) is a sort of middlebrow chaos theory, whereby apparently trivial turning points make huge differences. A butterfly stamping causes electrical storms on Jupiter, or at least a housewife's craving for a cigarette, indulged or resisted, makes possible or precludes her home- help's career as a journalist.

As often in Ayckbourn, what the form makes possible the development neutralises. The artificial richness of texture given by the various narrative possibilities is cancelled by the two-dimensionality of the people involved. In the versions on offer, each one of the four main characters has a psychological breakdown of some description. Either this represents a profound insight into the precariousness of mental health in ordinary life, or else laborious contrivance, a great deal of forcing the issue in a structure that supposedly accommodates the arbitrary.

Life in Smoking / No Smoking is a fluent but lazy plotter, a dogged rather than inspired explorer of character. Under the apparent variety of situation lurks a great emotional repetitiveness. The characteristic feeling-tone is a thin bleakness, saved from accusations of being glib only by its negativity. All the men in Smoking / No Smoking want what they don't have, all the women want what they have been promised. Opportunities are either missed and regretted or taken and regretted; only one out of the 12 endings could be described as even bittersweet. Triumphs are illusory, defeats are real.

The net effect of Smoking / No Smoking, for all the intelligence and imagination that have been poured into the project, is not liveliness or life-likeness but exhaustion. The labyrinth contains only dead ends, and Ayckbourn's emancipation from linear time only accelerates the process of entropy, the progressive annihilation of difference.

For details, see page 27

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