Remembering “Providence”

In honor of the memory of Alain Resnais, who died a few days ago, here’s a revisit to a brief piece on his remarkable film Providence  that appeared in this space almost exactly two years ago:

Alain Resnais’ 1977 drama  Providence rarely comes up when movie buffs meet, but it’s a fascinating piece of work that deserves to remain part of the ongoing conversation.

Critics were unkind when it was released, a number of them dismissing it as an art film overly impressed with its own complexity and cleverness – but a recent second look reaffirmed my own positive take on the material when I first viewed it 30-plus years ago. It’s certainly smarter and more complicated than, say,  Transformers, but it really requires no more careful attention than following the convolutions of  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Providence was, and remains, a gorgeously constructed piece of work. Mirroring the obsessions of its characters, it often resembles a control freak’s dream with its beautifully sterile sets and geometric staging, that sense of control extending to a Miklos Rosza score so subtle that it’s nearly subliminal. The screenplay by David Mercer is equally meticulous and positively dripping with bile, delivered by a first-class cast of sharp-tongued performers.

John Gielgud, at the beginning of a remarkable late-career renaissance that would run for nearly another quarter of a century, is brilliantly acerbic as a famous but second-rank novelist near the end of his days, a man whose nights are consumed by vicious drunken ramblings and searing bowel problems. The bulk of those ramblings are given over to spinning a narrative about the loveless marriage of his philandering mean-spirited son, an attorney who’s currently defending a soldier accused of a mercy killing.

Dirk Bogarde is dagger-sharp as the supercilious son, chilly as an iceberg and an even match for Gielgud in his delivery of Mercer’s nasty and highly literate dialogue. As his unhappy wife, Ellen Burstyn provides effective contrast with a hypnotically underplayed performance. Elaine Stritch, though uncharacteristically muted, retains an intensity as unnerving in its own quiet way as Bogarde’s. And David Warner as the accused soldier combines a performance of mounting dread with an air of otherworldliness that ties into the film’s more bizarre passages.

As the story progresses, we realize that there’s more than a domestic drama underway. There are unsettling moments that take place behind barbed wire in a concentration camp setting. And most unexpected at all is the gradual insertion of a subplot involving werewolves, with various characters succumbing to a kind of lycanthropy plague that’s often viewed as a background detail.

In the end, we realize that much of what we’ve been told about these characters is untrue, but we’ve hardly been cheated. Thanks to the remarkably adroit sleight of hand performed by Mercer and Resnais, we’ve been privy to an ingenious meditation on the creative process as communicated by the discipline and impressive versatility of Gielgud and his fellow actors.

Any film lover with a taste for intelligent and unconventional drama should give  Providence a look…which for many will surely lead to a second look, as well.

March 5, 2014 · Posted in Legends  


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