PRINT February 2014


Alain Resnais, Je t’aime, je t’aime, 1968, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Claude Ridder (Claude Rich). Photo: Film Desk/Bleeding Light Film Group/Mag Bodard.

BY 1968, Alain Resnais had completed four feature films that dwell upon the nature of time and memory and disrupt standard narrative chronology. In each, he employs disjunctive styles of editing to tell fractured, nonlinear tales, shuttling between the present, the future, and the past in ways that sometimes baffled contemporary audiences. In Hiroshima mon amour (1959), two lovers relive wartime traumas through flashbacks that seem to overwhelm them; in Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the unnamed visitors to a baroque chateau wander its mirrored halls and ruminate on a past love story, while trapped in the repetitive loops of an eternal present; both Muriel ou le temps d’un retour (Muriel, or the Time of Return, 1963) and La Guerre est finie (1966) inject moments of enigma into relatively straightforward storytelling through erratic cutaways, flash-forwards, and repetition, dislodging viewers from the expected temporal flow. These films established Resnais as a director whose narrative reconfigurations paralleled those of the twentieth-century literary avant-garde, and indeed two central figures of the Nouveau Roman, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, collaborated with him as screenwriters (on Hiroshima and Marienbad, respectively).

Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), Resnais’s subsequent feature-length effort—which is being rereleased in the US this month by The Film Desk and Bleeding Light Film Group—likewise meditates on love, trauma, and death. It, too, deploys a disorienting, atemporal montage that denies easy immersion. But what sets Je t’aime, je t’aime apart from its predecessors is that its disruptions are given a narrative rationale, a literal causal mechanism within the world of the film itself. Je t’aime traverses willy-nilly through time because it is, in fact, a time-travel story—Resnais’s contribution to a small corpus of Nouvelle Vague–era science-fiction films that includes Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) (another tale of time travel) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). When Je t’aime’s protagonist, Claude Ridder (played by Claude Rich), experiences a fragmented string of moments from his past, he does so not only subjectively, but objectively, as he teleports through his own history.

The film begins in Brussels, with Ridder’s discharge from a clinic where he was being treated after a failed suicide attempt. Outside, he is approached by two men who invite him to participate in an experiment and drive him to the nearby Crespel Research Center. Rendered silent by a chorus of other-worldly voices on the sound track (a modernist dirge composed by Krzysztof Penderecki), their car seems to glide through the city, and this sense of unreality is confirmed when one of the men tells Ridder he might expect something extraordinary. “Are you going to turn the car into a pumpkin?” Ridder jokes. They arrive at a site purporting to be an agricultural laboratory, but the scientists there soon reveal that what they actually study is time. They have sent a mouse into the past for sixty seconds and brought it back, they tell Ridder (who calls attention to the whimsy of this conceit by asking how they know the mouse really went), and now they need a willing human guinea pig to attempt the same journey and provide them a firsthand account—and therefore confirmation—of the process. “What chance would I have of surviving?” he asks them. “One hundred percent if you were a mouse,” is the response. Ridder’s suicidal tendencies make him the ideal candidate.

The scientists refer to their time machine as the “sphere,” but it proves to be nothing so cleanly geometric as that name suggests. Blobby, elephantine, and pallid, the room-size Crespel time-traveling device resembles less a product of space-age technology than a giant bulb of garlic (complete with a cluster of shoot-like spikes crowning its top) or some strange primordial sea creature—or that fairy-tale pumpkin coach Ridder so wryly invoked. Once inside, and under the influence of the drug T5, Ridder settles supine into a body-hugging protuberance that looks like an oversized beanbag chair, then silently flickers out of the present. The next moment, he is snorkeling in the ocean off the Riviera, reliving his vacation of a year prior.

FOR CENTURIES, stories of traveling to the past or to the future relied exclusively on supernatural explanations: prophetic dreams, haunting visions, or other means of enchantment. But toward the end of the nineteenth century, the narrative mechanism of time travel secured a more rational basis in the nascent art of science fiction. H. G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine (1895) pioneered the concept of a technology that enabled time travel, a novelty underscored by the more Edisonian name given to the book’s first American edition, The Time Machine: An Invention. Wells envisioned his time machine as a vehicle, based on the rationale that time was a “fourth dimension” we could traverse in the same way that we move through the three dimensions of space. The strangeness of this concept inspired Alfred Jarry to write a pataphysical treatise titled “How to Construct a Time Machine” (1899). “A Time Machine, that is, a device for exploring Time, is no more difficult to conceive of than a Space Machine,” he wrote, “whether you consider Time as the fourth dimension of Space or as a locus essentially different because of its contents.”

Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future, 1985, 35 mm, color, sound, 116 minutes.

Later time machines are frequently pictured in ways that similarly evoke motion in space—as portals, for example, or elevator-like boxes. In Je t’aime, je t’aime, the “sphere” is compared to a submersible vessel. “You’ll be like a diver in a decompression chamber,” a scientist tells Ridder (and, indeed, his initial time trip, as we have seen, sends him underwater). By imagining his time machine as a vehicle, Wells could also explore its passenger’s subjective experience of temporal movement. What would the world look like as one traveled into the future? “The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me,” Wells’s unnamed narrator recalls, describing his first journey into the future. “The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. . . . [T]he jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band.”

In its prescience of time-lapse photography, this passage suggests an evolutionary convergence, for 1895 saw the invention of two types of time machine: The first was Wells’s literary device; the second was cinema, a mechanism that allows viewers to see into the past and to envision possible futures. Wells’s time machine was predicated on the concept of space-time, which had first begun as a mathematical model in the mid-eighteenth century but would soon emerge as a key concept in modern cosmology with the theorization of special relativity by Einstein in 1905. Cinema became possible after the spatialization of time was achieved in certain technical experiments—the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey, the zoopraxography of Eadweard Muybridge—and the arrival of the flexible film roll, which allowed for both the recording and the projection of successive frames that reproduced photographs in motion.

With the filmstrip’s spatialization of time came the possibility of time’s restructuring; recorded time became a medium that could be shaped freely. One of the first films to exploit this new malleability was Auguste and Louis Lumière’s Demolition d’un mur (Demolition of a Wall, 1896), a one-shot actuality of workmen knocking down a masonry wall; its collapse was projected both forward and backward, to the amusement of the earliest moviegoers. The faster-than-life time-lapse motion described by Wells became a reality not long after, appearing in Georges Méliès’s now-lost trick film Carrefour de l’Opera (Crossroads of the Opera, 1897), Robert W. Paul’s On a Runaway Motor Car Through Piccadilly Circus (1899), and, a bit later, F. Percy Smith’s groundbreaking scientific studies of plant growth such as Birth of a Flower (1910). These devices continued to be employed to produce moments of wonder and astonishment in longer narrative films, becoming part of the visual vocabulary of film comedy and a building block of the special-effects picture.

In the 1920s, these techniques for transforming time were embraced by the first cinematic avant-garde, in the time-stopping ray used by a mad inventor in René Clair’s Paris qui dort (The Crazy Ray, 1925), which brings Paris to a literal standstill, for example, or in the speed-ups and slow-downs of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Annette Michelson noted this use of time-manipulation by Vertov and Clair in her 1979 essay “Dr. Crase and Mr. Clair,” citing the Surrealists as the catalyst for this tendency, in their ecstatic commitment to “a negation of time.” “In its synthetic quality, its radical plasticity, cinema evoked a prompt response, a proprietary impulse from the movement; it touched a nerve within surrealism,” she observed. “Was it not the plasticity of cinematic time, the control of its flow, the power of suspension and retard that spoke to Breton and his friends?”

VERY SOON, however, it becomes clear that something has gone wrong. Ridder flits back for a split second into the sphere, then back again to the same moment at the beach he had just reexperienced. The scene repeats, and then the film cuts to a string of apparently unrelated episodes from other times in Ridder’s life, showing him walking on the streets of Brussels, fighting with a lover in a child’s bedroom, working in the stockroom of a publishing house. “We’ve lost him,” the technicians say, back at Crespel. Over the next hour, Ridder relives the past decade of his life in fragments, out of order; flashing periodically back into the sphere, he is unable to stick in the present. Much of what we see involves his relationship with Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), which ends with her death (was it accidental?), his job at the publisher’s, and his affairs with a number of other women. Finally rejected by the sphere at the moment of his suicide attempt, Ridder’s direly wounded body comes back to the present, thrown up on the grounds of Crespel. He is taken for medical treatment, and his fate is left in question.

Still from Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime, 1968, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Claude Ridder (Claude Rich), center.

Though certain events are traumatic—particularly Catrine’s death and Ridder’s attempted suicide— for the most part, the visions of his life are unremarkable, showing him relaxing on holiday or dealing with the minutiae of work. But they take on a jittering energy thanks to Je t’aime’s unpredictable editing rhythms. Resnais’s screenwriter for the film, Belgian science-fiction author Jacques Sternberg, stressed his desire to focus on the quotidian aspects of Ridder’s life. “When you go back into the past in cinema, it is almost always to participate in important, privileged scenes,” he observed in 1967 in the French film journal L’Arc. “It is as if you were on the psychoanalyst’s couch. I wanted, on the contrary, to choose totally insignificant scenes, temps morts.”

A segment about a third of the way through Je t’aime exemplifies this kind of idle time, a time of boredom and listlessness that plays against the film’s staccato memory-montage. Sitting in his office at a desk cluttered with papers, Ridder ponders his late-afternoon workday malaise. “It’s 3 PM. Three hours to go,” he says to nobody but himself. “Three minutes ago it was 3 PM. In three weeks it will be 3 PM. In a century, too. Time passes for everybody but me. It stays static. It’s 3 PM forever.”

TIME TRAVEL emerges as a narrative element in commercial cinema with the first of several adaptations of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, produced by Fox in 1921. Though only parts of this feature have survived, we may assume, following Twain’s novel, that the displacement of the time traveler into the past is employed for satirical effect. This somewhat simple use of time travel, primarily as an excuse to resituate a modern protagonist in a premodern world, would become an evergreen comedy staple, from Eddie Cantor’s pre-Code musical Roman Scandals (1933), up through more contemporary variations such as the Martin Lawrence vehicle Black Knight (2001), advertised as “a comedy about a man out of his time and out of his mind.” In this quasi-genre, the time traveler can be seen as a stand-in for the spectator herself, thrust into the past by the powers of cinema. We might not be able, in truth, to visit ancient Rome or medieval England, but we can, through viewing movies shot years ago, stare into images of 1933 or 2001, as if through a temporal telescope.

The device of the time machine proper does not enter cinema until relatively late, with the first film version of Wells’s novel, directed by George Pal, in 1960. One of the special-effects masters of his day, Pal uses stop-motion to portray the speeding-up of time from the viewpoint of Wells’s hero in a segment that is fairly faithful to the passage quoted earlier; a snail zips by on the floor, the sun becomes a streak across the sky. At this moment, the two time machines created in 1895 merge, each becoming an emblem of the other’s power. A lesser-known film from the same decade suggests this equivalence even more strikingly. In the low-budget American International picture The Time Travelers (1964), directed by Ib Melchior, scientists construct a time viewer—basically an enormous video monitor—that allows them to see into the future. A malfunction occurs and the screen becomes a portal; the scientists walk through it, into the late twenty-first century. At the end of the movie, a mysterious glitch occurs, and the scientists become caught in a time loop. The film ends by recapitulating everything that has already been shown, as if fast-forwarding through a tape, then repeats this over and over again, with increasing rapidity, in a crescendo of flashing images.

While The Time Travelers provides mesmerizing visualizations of time twisted into new forms, more often, the time-travel film achieves its aesthetic force through narrative knots and tangles, the time paradoxes so often savored by time-travel literature. These mind-bending webs of skewed causality can be used to wildly different ends—the recursive love story of La Jetée (and Terry Gilliam’s 1995 remake, 12 Monkeys), the apocalyptic blockbusting of the Terminator series (1984–2009), the Oedipal comedy of the Back to the Future trilogy (1985–90), the assassin’s redemption of Looper (2012). In some cases, as in Donnie Darko (2001) and Primer (2004), the complexity of paradox itself becomes the central concern of the film. Fan-made diagrams of the most intricately plotted time-travel movies are testament to this appeal, temporal cartographies depicting braids of colored time threads doubling back on themselves, as compelling as any college-dorm-room Escher print.

Je t’aime has been diagrammed in a similar manner: In his 1978 monograph on Resnais, James Monaco includes a two-page grid attempting to lay out all the scenes shown in the film, restoring them to chronological order, using Sternberg’s script as his guide. While instructive, the exercise also seems beside the greater point of the film, which is intended not primarily to baffle us with logical puzzles but to provide a way to think about individual memory as its own kind of time travel. In this focus on memory, Je t’aime serves as an echo of its predecessor, La Jetée, which undoubtedly inspired its development, as Marker and Resnais were frequent collaborators. The later film’s American cousin would be George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel, in which World War II veteran Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time” under the influence of an alien race called the Tralfamadorians. (In an essay comparing Je t’aime and Slaughterhouse-Five published in the winter 1972/73 issue of Film Quarterly, Lee Atwell quotes Hill as saying, “I don’t want you to think I haven’t been influenced by Resnais . . . but I wasn’t interested in making an experimental film . . . that’s not my bag.”)

The Bergsonian theme at the heart of Je t’aime led Gilles Deleuze, in Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1989), to valorize it as one of three films, along with Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), that serve as exemplars of “how we inhabit time, how we move in it.” Resnais’s film suggests that we live not in the present, but in the subjective time of our memories, which are always at odds with the inexorable clock time of physical existence. Our memories are like films we’ve made from the footage of our own lives, edited for clarity, or, pathologically, to confusion. Tellingly, Resnais’s ninety-minute tale was winnowed down from Sternberg’s original eight-hundred-page script, which exhaustively detailed Ridder’s backstory. Freud believed that neurotics suffer mainly from reminiscences. But Ridder—a rider, a reader, a riddle—not only suffers from reminiscences, he dies trapped inside them.

Je t’aime, je t’aime opens on February 14 at Film Forum in New York.

Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry, New York, and teaches at Bard College.