1968’s Je t’aime je t’aime is perhaps the least cerebral film of the French New Wave master Alain Resnais’s iconoclastic and influential early period, but hardly to its detriment—a humane yet starkly irresolvable fable about love and memory, it effuses both a gripping psychological intensity and a visceral emotional magnetism. Drawing upon the director’s trademark formal playfulness and his philosophical gravitas, the film is a modest miracle of accrual, becoming darker and stranger over the course of its short runtime while never losing its empathetic charge.
Director: Alain Resnais
Producer: Mag Bodard
Writers: Jacques Sterberg, Alain Resnais
Cinematographer: James Mather
Editors: Albert Jurgenson, Colette Leloup
Music: Krzysztof Penderecki
Cast: Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot, Anouk Ferjac, Alain MacMoy
US Theatrical Release: May 7, 1972
US Distributor: New Yorker Films
Resnais announced his arrival in the auteur-crowded French New Wave scene with a smattering of shorts, including the masterfully harrowing Holocaust documentary Night and Fog. But it’s his trio of early features that cemented his reputation and established his key aesthetic concerns. 1959’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad, and 1963’s Muriel ou le Temps d'un retour each have quite different relationships with traditional narrative cohesion, but they share a fascination with memory and trauma, or perhaps memory as trauma. For Resnais, the inherently fractured experience of remembering is congruent with the unique formal potential of the moving image medium, joined in their ability to radically dislocate subjectivity. These early masterpieces make a mission out of foregrounding the salient strangeness of both memory and cinema, both of which come to us as a parade of images that feels whole yet remains fundamentally fractured.
Je t’aime, je t’aime, too, strives to martial the properties of cinema toward an approximation of the irresolvable fragmentation and endless repetition through which we experience memory. But it brings this preoccupation onto fertile, emotionally universal ground—underneath its science fiction premise and its flights of formal abstraction lies something close to a classic, tragic love story.
The film begins with a handful of scientists plotting an experiment and eyeing a potential participant: Claude, a young man about to be discharged from a mental hospital following a suicide attempt. Explaining that they’ve succeeded in sending mice into the past for a minute at a time, the researches quickly convince Claude to become their first human subject, and before long, he finds himself sitting in a strange contraption resembling some sort of mollusk that’s been used as a pincushion for icicles. He braces to be sent backwards through time, where, the scientists explain, he won’t be able to change events, only relive them.
The experiment fails, however, as Claude is plunged into his past repeatedly and at erratic intervals, powerless to control his chronological destination or to return to the comforts of the present. And so Resnais presents a series of jagged, jumbled montage-vignettes, each depicting disparate moments from Claude’s past that he’s dragged through anew. The resulting rush of gently disordered ellipses and smash cuts forms a disorienting yet occasionally intimate glimpse into our protagonist’s life and psyche.
The film reveals, in fits and starts, Claude’s professional boredom and frustration, his fraught connection with the enchanting and mercurial Catrine, his eventual affair with another woman, and the bewildered despair that overwhelms him somewhere along the line. Through fragments from both the relationship’s starry-eyed beginning and its raw, devastating disintegration, the film steadily beings to suggest harrowing questions into exactly how and why the Catrine disappeared from Claude’s life.
Je t’aime, je t’aime achieves just as much depth as Resnais’ earlier films, but it’s less deliberately estranging, at times approaching something like optimism. Like Marienbad, it orbits an unknowable past, offering us only a distorted prism through which to look, but there’s a warmth and vitality to this film’s viewpoint that hews closer to the full emotional spectrum of memory. And while its increasingly ruptured narrative time ultimately enables a warped and tragic conclusion, the film’s most memorable moments are to be found in the fleeting, detached bursts through which we come to know Claude and Catrine’s romance—indeed, some of their scenes together are both stunningly romantic and beguilingly naturalistic.
These smatterings of remembered moments seem drift by like so many gnomic puzzle pieces, never quite cohering. Claude’s endless drift through the anguishes and joys of his past ultimately yields a few answers, but for all its empathy (and even its occasional levity), Je t’aime, je t’aime is not exactly a story: it’s a delicately hallucinatory experience that dishevels far more fixed truths than it arrives at.