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At rep cinemas this week: the late Alain Resnais’s rarely screened time-travelling romance, a road trip into Poland’s past, and a documentary about the invention and rise of the teenager.
Je t’aime, je t’aime
Directed by Alain Resnais
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
When French New Wave stalwart Alain Resnais passed away at 91 earlier this year, he left behind a corpus of probing, formally adventuresome modernist films about memory and human consciousness. Perhaps owing to its unfortunate historical circumstances—it was slated to premiere at the 1968 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, which was legendarily scuttled by labour strikes and nationwide protests—Je t’aime, je t’aime has never quite developed the following enjoyed by Resnais’s best-known films like Hiroshima, mon amour and the evocative Holocaust documentary Night and Fog. Restored in a gorgeous 35-millimetre print, though, it registers as every bit their equal.
A playful yet intricately structured essay on the way we think of our past and re-experience it through our memories (and the surrogate memories fabricated by photographs and film images), Je t’aime, je t’aime is romantic science fiction at its most humane, an obvious influence on future highlights of the genre like Solaris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As the film opens, Claude (Claude Rich) is recovering from a suicide attempt. His fatalistic outlook on life makes him an appealing candidate for an experiment run by a group of fringe scientists, who hope to recruit the first human to travel back in time. Claude agrees, and although the plan is to send him back to relive a specific minute of his life, before long, he’s lost in his memories of his doomed relationship to Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), who has seemingly colonized his past.
Resnais’s films about the past have long been celebrated for their inventiveness, and Je t’aime, je t’aime’s depiction of time travel as a disorienting montage of repeated scenes and fleeting exchanges (set to Krzysztof Penderecki’s disjunctive score, and interspersed with images of Claude asleep in a womblike capsule) is as impressive as the long, eerie tracking shots through opulent hotel corridors in Last Year at Marienbad. What registers most here, though, is the film’s affective charge: unlike Marienbad, which unfolds through a series of cryptic conversations between its unnamed ciphers, Je t’aime, je t’aime’s ill-fated lovers seem like red-blooded humans—which makes Claude’s inability to grasp at, let alone rewrite, telling moments from his failed relationship all too poignant.
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Pawel Pawlikowski returns to his native Poland after a sojourn in English-language filmmaking with Ida, the story of the eponymous young novitiate nun (played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), who, on the eve of her vows, is transformed by a visit with her estranged aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda, a low-level judge and former Communist state prosecutor, informs the girl that she is Jewish and that her parents died during the Nazi occupation of the country. What might have been the material for a dopey road-trip story about an odd couple finding themselves in their travels through the countryside is transformed, in Pawlikowski and Trzebuchowska’s capable hands, into a modest and impeccably lensed character study about the momentous impact of one’s family history.
Immaculately shot in black and white, squared off in unusual boxy compositions, and cut with enviable precision, every still in Ida could be framed and hung on a wall. That makes the film beautiful to marvel at, though it also invests the proceedings with a certain airlessness, as though everything in this world that’s of interest is contained in the shot—an especially curious effect, given how little is revealed about the historical context behind Ida and Wanda’s quest beyond its broad strokes. Indeed, as the film goes on, Ida’s transformation at her liberal aunt’s hands from a reserved adolescent to a more freewheeling jazz aficionado begins to feel a bit too tidy, her redemption narrative somewhat at odds with the anxious collective history that has hung over both her aunt’s and her parents’ lives. Still, this is strong stuff, beautifully observed.
Directed by Matt Wolf
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
“The teenager was an American invention,” we’re told toward the end of Matt Wolf’s breezy but insubstantial Teenage, a mix of archival footage and flat voiceovers that traces the crests and troughs of youth culture in the first half of the 20th century. Based on Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, the film aims to ground its social history of the teenager as concept in personal anecdotes and essayistic asides like the aforementioned soundbite, though it’s not always a successful fusion.
As with most feature-length montages based on a central conceit, mileage varies considerably here. When Wolf is focused on dramatizing specific historical moments, like the cynical youth response to the degradations of the First World War and its wasting of an entire generation, the film is at its most incisive. Conversely, it’s at its most banal when it cedes authority to bored recitations of teen diaries from the period—recitations courtesy of luminaries like Ben Whishaw, who can’t do much with dire proclamations like “We were a wartime invention” and “Perhaps it was all the late nights, or perhaps it was the abortion.” As a précis of a 600-page tome, Teenage is good enough, though one wishes the insights were more valuable.