After sixty years of moviemaking, Alain Resnais remains an innovator. His Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) played with time and place as it explored the intimate relationship between a pair of lovers within the context of the war. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) was a New Wave film like no other, and Resnais again toyed with time and place, creating a mysterious, challenging, stunningly beautiful film.
At an age when one might expect a darker, more abstract work, Resnais’ recent Same Old Song is one of his lighter, most direct films, bittersweet to be sure, but accessible, charming, and wise. He dedicates the film to the late Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), and adopts Potter’s wildly original technique of using excerpts from pop music recordings on the soundtrack, with the characters on the screen lip-synching the lyrics which are woven into the dialogue to comment on their thoughts at various key moments. But where Potter used this technique in the context of black, scathing satire, Resnais is in a gentler mood, using the song lyrics to underscore some of his themes expressed in the multiple relationships in the film. Potter’s songs, too, are generally old standards which are known to – and have resonance for – English speaking audiences. Resnais uses songs that one assumes are similarly familiar to French-speaking audiences, but will likely be less associative for others.
Same Old Song follows the travails of three central intertwined relationships. Odile is attractive and perky, married to Claude, somewhat older and retiring. Odile complains of Claude’s capitulating style, but events reveal her to be neurotically controlling and ripe for a come-uppance. (When she makes a mistake and feels out of control, the ways in which she overcompensates have droll consequences.)
Odile renews a friendship with Nicolas who has returned to Paris to find a flat for his family. Nicolas turns out to have marital problems of his own as well as galloping hypochondria; he gets to do a funny patter song about medical symptoms.
Odile’s sister Camille is a depressive, subject to panic disorder. She is completing her doctoral dissertation on an arcane subject of interest to fifteen people in the entire world. Her boyfriend, Marc, is a dishonest real estate agent with a very bad attitude. Camille is gently wooed by Simon who works for Marc, but would prefer to be known as a writer of plays for the radio, a charming anachronism, indeed.
In the manner characteristic of so many French films, the story unfolds through lots of talk (with the occasional song) and small events. Over the course of its two hours, though, each of the main characters deepens and issues of deception, self-deception, trust, and control in their relationships take on surprising complexity. At the same time, Resnais keeps it all feathery light.
"Love’s like a song that lingers and slips through your fingers," one of the lyrics observes.