The world’s first Spherist masterpiece?
From its opening with paper silhouettes of the actors to its closing bows taken before blue sequined curtains, Not On the Lips (Pas sur la bouche) ushers us into a theatrical realm where characters exist as shadow play figures, yet are entwined in flirtatious entanglements as threads from the past keep pulling them together. Feather-light, exuberant, and playful are adjectives seldom applied to the most celebrated of director Alain Resnais’s previous landmarks, Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. But this pillar of French cinema here serves a confection from the dessert trolley, sweet with generosity for his characters who accept each others’ foibles until they finally sort themselves out into three couples, and flawlessly paced until all misunderstandings resolve in harmony.
Resuscitating (and refurbishing) a 1925 musical that froths with satiric wit, Resnais’s cast (using their own voices, with no dubbing) captures the rhythms and infectious lilt of one delightful melody after another. Not only solos, but a duet rhapsodizing about love while mercilessly dropping lobsters into boiling water, a virginity quartet (“It’s no fun being number 2!”), and even a sextet and a septet. There are list songs, a tribute to French argot, and even a paean to the pleasures of spying through a keyhole, with the subtitles breathlessly racing to keep pace with the rhyming couplets and somehow succeeding.
It’s worth the price of admission to hear Lambert Wilson as a cigar-wielding Yank tycoon whose excruciating American accent hilariously stomps all over the French language in heavy boots. Masculinity seems rooted in crackpot beliefs, and since it’s an interdependent clockwork universe, the females must accommodate the quirks and eccentric theories of their mates, both real and prospective. The metallurgist husband (suave Pierre Arditi), for one, holds that fidelity rests simply on the proper blending of chemicals, while the Yank still carries the trauma suffered at a tender age from a surprise kiss on the lips from his schoolmistress. He swore never again: “My lips are made for talking, not for kissing,” which means he must resist the blandishments of a chorus of bright young flappers crowding his personal space as they beg, “Just a kiss! Just a kiss!”
The greatest current of energy flows from the vivacious Sabine Azéma, star 20 years ago of Resnais’s sublimely touching Mélo, another stage-bound work. But where that film saw the inherent transience of musical performance as a metaphor for love’s fragility, the music of Not on the Lips proclaims the tenacity of desire. Amidst all the frivolity, everyone here wants a partner, while the seductive Azéma, gowned in sequins and lolling on a leopard-skin swathed sofa, expounds in song the wife’s contention that “love requires jealousy.”
Smiling down on this project is the ghost of Lubitsch, whose legacy is invoked by this film’s dinner parties among the professional classes, with jealousy-inducing visits from long-lost loves, while lotharios and cuckolds reach rampant wrong conclusions. As in Lubitsch’s One Hour with You, the principals cannot resist approaching the camera to share a confidence with us, and the master would certainly approve the bachelor’s pied-à-terre designed in red-and-gold intensive chinoiserie, with doors from behind which participants emerge, clearly satisfied with unseen delights.
As in classic musicals, Resnais makes simple long takes suffice, with many songs presented in one unbroken shot. To be sure, subtle touches surface, such as the occasional faint counterpoint from distant dogs howling and alley cats yowling, or the peripheral conceit where persons fade as they exit, as if they had no existence off the set. When Audrey Tautou (Amélie herself, playing the ingénue eager to no longer be an ingénue) sits down at a piano as if to sing (this is a musical, after all), she confounds expectations by closing the lid instead. The candied look crafted by cameraman Renato Berta cushions the whimsy and helps the film avoid any misstep that might explode the creampuff.
Resnais, whose early work probed corners of the art world, here subjects it to much ribbing, as characters drop references to batty theories like Cucu-ism (the Cubist-cuneiform school, supposedly the chief rival of Dada); Total Art (where the practitioner composes a painting, a symphony, and a poem, only as one indivisible whole); and the Spherist movement (where performers in everyday clothes recite the text in an antique language). In this film, as the director himself has said, “we are very close to Lewis Carroll” with his multiple dimensions of absurdity (for example, several characters here, already creatures of the theatre, are themselves rehearsing amateur theatricals). In fact, so confidently does Resnais polish this example of a lost art that his dotty boulevard operetta could be the world’s first Spherist masterpiece.