It was probably inevitable that Alain Resnais would make a film about time travel, just as it was inevitable that Nic Roeg would do psychic visions and make a scene where a man’s life flashes before his eyes and Tinto Brass would do a scene where a woman rides a bicycle with her bottom out. Some things cannot be avoided forever.
And he chose a perfect title, with its suggestion of a needle skipping on Serge Gainsbourg. His film is excellent. I read about it as a teenager in books about science fiction, none of which seemed to like it very much. It seemed they wanted to like it — they liked LA JETTEE, and they liked the idea of an arthouse filmmaker treating science fiction ideas respectfully — but they couldn’t quite get along with this one. Perhaps because its science fiction premise becomes a pretext for exploring a man’s life, so that it’s barely science fiction at all?
That was disappointment was echoed by my own first feeling on seeing a fuzzy bootleg of the film twenty-odd years after first hearing about it. But having just watched it again in a more pristine version (though with somewhat incomplete fan-subs), my admiration for the film is practically boundless. It perhaps helps that I just enjoyed PROVIDENCE, newly restored, at the Lumiere Festival in Lyon, so I was in the mood for A.R.’s mysteries of time.
The film’s central image, the big bulbous, baggy time machine, a Roger Dean living space or an internal organ rejected by the design committee, was familiar to me from those sci-fi guides. It’s not quite plausible as something the movie’s white-coats would have built, is it? But then, would Rod Taylor have the joinery and upholstering skills to create THE TIME MACHINE? Sometimes beauty is its own excuse.
Claude Rich (where have I seen him? Ah yes, that Jane Fonda film recently about aging friends living together — his face has time-traveled out of all recognition but his smile retains the same blissed-out tranquility) plays a failed suicide recruited by the Crespel Institute for their dangerous experiment — using a drug, T5, and a strange padded, organic enclosure/machine, they plan to send him into his own past for one minute. Planning on re-suiciding at the earliest opportunity, Claude doesn’t mind obliging them. But the experiment goes awry and he finds himself free-falling through his own memories, reliving his recent life (the last seven years or so) in jumbled fragments, a helpless passenger in events he cannot change. Accompanied by a white mouse.
Alternative titles for JE T’AIME, JE’ T’AIME —
SNORKEL LOOP. THE SPONGY MACHINE. THE GLASGOW HORROR. BEACH MOUSE. TIME’S BEAN BAG.
What’s THIS guy’s story? One of a number of surreal images that pop up, suggesting a breakdown not only of time, but reality itself. Or that the character is traveling not into time, but into his memories, which include odd subjective impressions and fantasies.
Resnais starts the film jagged, jumping forward in time to keep the story propelling us ever on — this relentless plot-thrust will soon be warped into a fragmented mosaic of sideways branching paths, just as rapid but more disorientating. It’s a little scary, as we share the hero’s loss of control and lack of any sense of direction.
The director also holds back on close-ups of his hero for the first few scenes, even when shooting fairly tight shots of the people he talks to: he withholds the expected reverse angle and goes back to the master instead. And this pattern sort of repeats when we first meet the tragic Catherine (Olga-Georges Picot), his girlfriend. It’s ages before we get a proper look at her (she’s beautiful).
He also holds back on letting us believe in the psychologically reality of Olga’s depression and Claude’s death-wish. It seems at first that they’re rather too chic to suggest inner dimensions of despair. But as the movie goes on, both get moments that are convincingly tragic. At the same time, there’s a kind of murder mystery — something terrible has happened in Glasgow (nothing too surprising there) — and the suspense as to whether Claude will escape the folds of time in which he is entangled, all while sunk in a sort of leathery beanbag, listening to Penderecki in a computerized brain room.
It’s all circling back to Glasgow, where something terrible happened. I was very excited to see what Resnais’s portrayal of Scotland’s second city would be like. In the end, we see a dark, gas-heated room with gloomy tartan curtains. This seems to me a fairly accurate portrayal of Glasgow, or about 50% of it. The other 50% is outdoors, and worse.
Resnais’s film has been rather hard to see, which is a shame, because while it’s neither MARIENBAD nor MURIEL, it’s rather excellent, one of the most original science fiction movies of the sixties (even if it gradually replaces the logic of science fiction with the logic of poetry or dream) and a worthy companion either to Chris Marker’s more celebrated take on temporal displacement, or to Resnais’ OTHER white mouse picture, MON ONCLE D’AMERIQUE