In a suburb of Paris in the 1920s, Marcel (André Dussollier), a celebrated concert violinist, is paying a friendly visiting his old friend Pierre (Pierre Arditi) and his wife Romaine (Sabine Azéma). After dinner, Marcel relates the story of how he discovered the great love of his life had betrayed him. Romaine is so transported by Marcel’s story that she instigates a clandestine meeting between them the following day. So begins a passionate affair that will ultimately tear their world apart.
Henri Bernstein was a successful playwright in the early decades of the twentieth century but had long fallen out of fashion when Alain Resnais decided to adapt his 1929 play Mélo for the cinema. Finding the necessary finance proved difficult until Marin Karmitz stepped in and offered to produce the film on the condition that Resnais shoot the film in twenty-one days in order to stay within the modest budget of 700 francs. Resnais agreed; rehearsing his actors for a month beforehand, followed by two weeks on the studio sets before filming began. So prepared in fact were the actors that before filming began they were able to give a full performance of the script for the newly arrived crew.
This kind of method is, of course, standard practice in the theatre and Resnais makes no attempt in his adaptation to disguise the origins of the material. The sets and lighting are intentionally artificial; a curtain falls between acts, and scenes play out in real time extended takes that evoke the experience of watching a play. It’s clear Resnais is less interested in capturing reality than in capturing emotional truth and it’s a testament to his brilliance as a director and the skill of the actors that we are drawn into the drama to such an extent that we forget the artificiality. Notice the way the light darkens and the camera slowly tracks around to a close up of Marcel during the opening scene when he recalls the moment he discovered his lover’s infidelity. At some point in the course of this long monologue, though we may be barely aware of it, Mélo ceases to be a play and becomes cinema.
And yet those expecting the kind of radical approach to cinema that Resnais is best known for may be disappointed. The play itself is a conventional melodrama – mélo is a chic French abbreviation of the word – and there are times when one feels a separation between the sometimes overdramatic plot and dialogue and the artful way it’s presented. Some were surprised when Resnais chose to adapt a play felt to be so dated; yet one can recognise themes – the past’s influence on the present, the interplay between emotion and memory, the consequences of betrayal – familiar from the director’s earlier work, that must have appealed to him. In his cinematic adaptation, Resnais has chosen not to try and update the material for modern tastes, but rather to capture it as it would have been performed at the time it was first written. Indeed, in an interview, the director recalled that he was not allowed to see the play as a child, but that his parents brought him back the programme, and that he wanted to create an adaptation of the play he would have wished to see. This nostalgia for a lost past reflects the loss experienced by the characters in the story and is central to an understanding of the film’s aesthetic.
At the centre of the film are the impassioned performances by Resnais’ regular trio of acting collaborators – Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi, and André Dussollier – ably supported by Fanny Ardant as Pierre’s loyal friend and admirer Christine. Azéma and Arditi both won César Awards at the 1987 ceremony, while Dussollier lost out in the best actor category to Daniel Auteuil for Jean de Florette. It’s Arditi’s Pierre who garners most of our sympathy. His naïve faith in love and friendship is cruelly exploited by those closest to him and when he returns in the final scene to confront Marcel with his suspicions, he’s a changed man. In one sense, his newly found maturity is admirable, revealing strength of character we didn’t know he had. At the same time, the loss of romantic illusions has taken a heavy toll on his joie de vivre. Dramatic logic would suggest that ‘the truth will out’ but instead Pierre is deceived once again, or perhaps only pretends to be. Either way it’s something of a relief that he never discovers the real facts, even though it might have made for a more satisfying ending if he had. In the end music says more than words can, as the pair perform a final duet together.