Having loved Alain Resnais’s last film Wild Grass (2009), and enjoyed his adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears In Public Places (2005) quite a bit, I was excited to have the rare chance to see Resnais’s first Ayckbourn adaptations, Smoking (1993) and No Smoking (1993), at the BFI last weekend. Resnais’s affinity for Ayckbourn’s work is well known, and Smoking and No Smoking were adapted by the director from Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges cycle. These eight plays focus upon a bluff school-master Toby Teasdale, his frustrated wife Celia, and the various employees, friends, relations and acquaintances that surround the couple in their small Yorkshire town. Structured as a series of duologues, the plays are designed to be performed by just two actors covering all the roles, and Resnais casts two of his favourite performers - Pierre Arditti and Sabine Azéma - here. But the plays’ primary interest lies in their temporal conceit. Having set up an incident or series of incidents, the action then whizzes backwards and forwards in time to reveal the consequences of the characters taking a different course of action at a pivotal moment. (The title alludes to Celia’s decision to smoke or not to smoke a cigarette in the first few minutes of the film.)
It’s a neat idea, but one that, sadly, proves much more intriguing than most of what’s done with it in these somewhat disappointing films. Smoking certainly has its splendours: in particular, there’s a great sequence at a village fete which culminates in a spectacular meltdown scene for Celia that Azéma plays to perfection. And it’s true that there’s something exciting, and admirable, about Resnais’s brazenly theatrical approach throughout. The opening cartoon images which introduce the characters have a heart-lifting charm, while the patently artificial sets and the often heightened performance styles (not to mention the entirely French-speaking Yorkshire town that the action is set in) nicely deconstruct film’s alleged recourse to naturalism.
But ultimately the variations on the characters’ fates that the films offer become so multiple that they have next to no weight, and the conceit seems to present so many more promising dramatic (and comic) scenarios than the often banal and uninteresting scenes that Ayckbourn, Resnais and the screenwriters Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri have developed. Maybe that’s the filmmakers' point: that there’s no divinity that shapes our ends, just a whole lot of randomness and chance. But, if so, it’s expression here makes for increasingly tedious viewing over the course of five hours, especially since the films lack the suggestiveness and mystery of Private Fears... or the crazy, what-the-hell daring of Wild Grass.
Arditti and Azéma are witty and resourceful actors and the skill with which they morph into the different characters is enjoyable to behold, up to a point. But even their best efforts and some effective individual set-pieces can’t prevent Smoking and No Smoking from feeling, finally, like a pair of theoretical exercises which lack the warmth, humour and bite to consistently engage or excite the viewer.