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PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES, 2006
Starring Sabine Azéma, Isabelle Carré, Laura Morante, Pierre Arditi, André Dussollier, Lambert Wilson
Based on the play by Alan Ayckbourn, six Parisians spend a lonely winter looking for acceptance and love. Thierry and Charlotte work in a real estate agency but hardly know each other. Thierry lives with his sister Gaëlle, whose success with lonely hearts ads is practically nonexistent. Charlotte is a devout Christian who accepts an after-hours carers’ job with Lionel’s bedridden father. Lionel works in a hotel bar frequented by Dan, who has been dishonorably discharged from the military. Lionel and his fiancée Nicole are looking for an apartment through Thierry’s agency.
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Private Fears in Public Places (or Coeurs in France, literally “Hearts”) is the sort of interlocking film that might be compared to Richard Curtis’ Love Actually. However, it offers a much less clean-cut and much bleaker view of six people whose stories interweave during a seemingly interminable winter in Paris. It is intelligent and thought-provoking, but necessarily, and knowingly, it seems, somewhat cold.
Private Fears in Public Places is adapted quite traditionally from its original play format, with a small cast of characters and limited number of settings. It begins in an empty Paris apartment that has been partitioned: cut in half. Estate agent Thierry (André Dussollier) shows Nicole (Laura Morante) around the apartment in “a very desirable area of Paris” while they wait for Nicole’s fiancé Dan. It is Dan’s specific wish to have an apartment with three rooms, one to use as his study. Slowly Thierry teases from Nicole the fact that Dan has recently come out of the army and has been looking for work; Nicole is the sole breadwinner and they are both sharing her flat (similar, in some ways, to the situation in Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud).
At home, Lionel greets Charlotte, who has come, it transpires, to work as an after-hours carer for Lionel’s father Arthur, who is bedridden. Lionel has three carers, one for the morning, one for the afternoon, and one during his night shift at the hotel bar. He confesses to Charlotte that his father has scared off most of the carers; Arthur is extremely verbally abusive to his son and later Charlotte. Charlotte turns to her faith in the form of her Bible to deal with Arthur’s cantankerousness; she remains calm even when he throws the bowl of soup she prepared all over her. Still, it’s clear it takes a profound effort on her part not to strike out.
Thierry is in for a shock. At the end of the tape of Songs of Praise is a home-recorded striptease that Thierry surmises must have been recorded by Charlotte. When he sees her the next day in work, he drops hints about what he’s seen, which Charlotte blandly ignores. However, she gives him another tape. Thierry wonders if she’s unaware of the content on the tapes? If not, why is she knowingly giving them to him? Why is she acting ignorant of them at work? Why is she continuing her insistence on Christian doctrine when the content of the tapes would seem, at best, dubious? Why does she rebuff his advances on her? Gaëlle walks in on her brother watching seeming pornography and, disgusted, refuses to speak with him.
Lionel is unable to reconcile Charlotte’s strong religious faith with the world as he sees it. He confides in her that Arthur left Lionel and his mother when Lionel was fifteen. Lionel moved in with his mother when she became ill and had great respect for her; after her death he offered to take care of his ailing father, with whom he never got on. “Life is full of trials that paralyze you,” Charlotte advises. Her counsel is to continue fighting temptation and the hell of weakness within each person.
Things have reached a crisis point with Dan and Nicole. When Dan seeks Lionel’s advice, Lionel tells him he and Nicole should see different people for awhile and Dan can find a new date through lonely heart ads or the Internet. After initial skepticism, Dan goes home to offer this to Nicole, when he finds she has already decided to ask him to leave. Dan, unable to return home due to his break with his father, takes up residence in Lionel’s hotel. Dan receives a response to his first ad. It turns out to be Gaëlle. The two immediately hit it off, despite the fact they both lie to each other about their real names. Gaëlle reveals that her first answer to an ad resulted in her being assaulted. Dan ends up taking Gaëlle to his favorite bar. They part company with the intent to see each other again.
Is romance in store for Dan and Gaëlle? Or is he destined to remain with Nicole? Is Charlotte interested in Thierry or Lionel or neither? Will she manage to cope with Arthur’s increasingly inhuman treatment? Will she reconcile with Thierry? Will Gaëlle forgive her brother? The filmmakers answer these questions but never take any easy roads to get there.
Private Fears in Public Places is clearly about human-to-human coldness and the invisible barriers erected between the people we see all the time. Alain Resnais, the director, takes this to an obvious extreme by keeping a continuous snowfall blanketing Paris in every single scene. He uses the cold winter light to signal the bitter loneliness felt by all the characters in their struggles with themselves and others. Almost every scene dissolves with another reminder of the snow. The characters wear layers of winter clothes and almost never touch. The slow zoom of the camera in the opening shows a frozen, snowy Paris, creating a claustrophobia and a bleak tone that never leaves the film.
In all the principle settings, characters are separated from each other by walls or partitions. Besides the obvious compartmentalization of the halved apartment in the first scene, Charlotte and Thierry work with glass partitions between them at the estate agency—trendy and complimentary to the glassy, modern décor of their office, but nevertheless extremely potent. Nicole’s studio flat has a veil around her bed and an artistic, partially-transparent partition made of metal leaves. Lionel’s bar is divided in two by a beaded curtain. Gaëlle’s bedroom in the apartment she shares with Thierry is separated off by Japanese paper sliding doors. In short, the film gives us six extremely flawed but vulnerable and very human characters whose foibles are our own, and whose desires—for love and acceptance—are completely believable.