Eternal Confusion of The Time-Traveling Mind: Je t’aime, Je t’aime

02/12/2014 4:00 AM |

Je t’aime, Je t’aime (1968)
Directed by Alain Resnais

Perhaps the most successful rendering of memory ever to grace the silver screen, this time-travel film makes for a cinematic experience quite unlike any you’ve ever had. Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) is scarcely out the door of the mental hospital where he’s been recovering from a suicide attempt when he’s intercepted by a pair of impeccably dressed representatives from an enigmatic and anonymous corporation. They pitch Claude on participating in an experiment, and our depressive hero goes along with it for lack of anything better to do. Soon, he’s loaded into a mollusk-like vessel where, plopped atop a fleshy beanbag with only a mouse to keep him company, he’s transported back a year to relive a single minute from his life.

Quelle surprise: the experiment goes terribly awry, and Claude finds himself dropping in and out of scenes from his agonized seven-year relationship with the beautiful and opaque Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot). Fragments of episodes from their romance—firmly in l’amour fou territory, complete with bouts of tenderness and smothering melancholy, explosive arguments, infidelity, etc.—hurtle by in a scrambled chronology (segments of which are sometimes repeated, complicating things further), making it all but impossible to find your footing. (Resnais does give the viewer an onscreen surrogate: the corporation’s scientists, who also have no idea what Claude is going through, and their nervous hypotheses about whether he’ll return to the present long enough to be rescued mirror our confounded attempts to figure out
what’s happening.)

You wouldn’t be wrong to read all this as Resnais’s ultimate dissertation on time. But, as with the better-known Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel, the past is nothing without the emotions that structure it and create the memories by which it becomes accessible. If Je t’aime, je t’aime were only its engrossing conceit, it’d still be one of the profoundest sci-fi flicks ever made, but because Resnais uses the narrative’s temporal gimmickry as an instrument by which to examine love and its psychic consequences unsentimentally, the film is a monumental achievement, as heady as it is overwhelmingly moving.

Opens February 14 at Film Forum