Los Angeles Times

Smoking'/'No Smoking


Wednesday August 2, 2000

     At a combined running time of four hours and 37 minutes, Alain Resnais' 1993 two-parter, "Smoking"/"No Smoking," may reasonably be called too much of a good thing.
     Resnais' screenwriters, Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui, have adapted for the screen "Intimate Exchanges," an octet of Alan Ayckbourn plays, in which all five female roles are played by Sabine Azema and all four male roles are played by Pierre Arditi. The old term "tour de force" applies to Azema and Arditi, who are never less than scintillating.
     The point Resnais makes over and over and over is that a simple decision can have profound and unexpected effects on one's destiny. In the first film, Celia Tisdale, wife of Toby, the alcoholic headmaster of a Yorkshire boarding school, steps onto the terrace of her home, spots a pack of cigarettes on a table, hesitates, mutters "What the hell" and lights up.
     In the second film, she does exactly the same thing--except in the end she resists lighting up. The basic situation in both films is that stooped, morose Toby is in danger of losing his position because of his drinking.
     However, his best friend, the handsome Miles Coombes--who is in love with the beautiful and understandably fed-up Celia--as chairman of the school's board of directors asserts his authority in a successful delaying motion. But it is clear that if Toby does not get help and shape up, he most certainly will be shipped out.
     When the initial sequence in both films is played out to its resolution, Resnais then shows how it could have turned out differently. The two films are composed of a total of six tales, resulting in 12 possible conclusions.
     You could take your choice of conclusions, but the overall impact of the film is to convey a sense of life's overwhelming uncertainty--that events often could just as easily go one way or another, in either case impacting upon us in accordance with our idiosyncrasies and situations. They are introduced by sprightly title cards created by French cartoonist Floeh, and they also announce whether we're moving days, weeks or years forward in time; John Pattison's score, while romantic, is similarly jaunty.
     Three other key characters emerge in the two films. They are Coombes' affectionate but unfaithful wife, Rowena, an unabashed sensualist; Sylvie, who is the Tisdales' house servant; and Lionel, the Tisdales' macho gardener. (There are cameo appearances by Lionel's father, the village's florid poet; Celia's concerned mother, Josephine, who urges her daughter to take a lover; and a puritanical school official, Irene.)
     Within its central sextet, the films imagine myriad romantic combinations but little happiness, not so much because attraction is not mutual but one or the other individual feels a sense of obligation. Each possible combination has its own fully developed plot with plenty of twists and turns. The cumulative effect is to suggest that human beings experience an awful lot of unfulfilled longing and endure lots of other bad news.
     Every moment may be wonderfully witty, nuanced and revealing, but 277 minutes add up to a wearying experience--one that, unsurprisingly, is not free of a sense of repetition.
     The film is further daunting in that it is staged entirely on sets--you feel as if you're watching a vintage Hollywood production--which means that the films constantly portray genuine emotions against deliberately artificial settings. This approach has paid off in numerous previous films with infinitely shorter running times, but here it grows tiresome: You are constantly having to give yourself to the film, for it is too artificial, too theatrical, to lure you into its make-believe and keep you there.
     There's no question that "Smoking"/"No Smoking" is the work of a master, but Resnais could have achieved even more, especially in impact, with substantially less footage.

Smoking'/'No Smoking, 2000. Unrated. Irene Pridworthy, Rowena Coombes, Sabine Azema as Celia Teasdale, Sylvie Bell,.

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