"Melo" (opening Friday at the Monica 4-Plex), Alain Resnais' film of the 1929 Henry Bernstein play, is as elegant as it is demanding. It more than lives up to its title, which is short for melodrama, and it would seem that Resnais was drawn to the play because it possesses a grand romantic passion, a quality notably absent in today's world. "Melo," however, is much easier to admire than to enjoy.
Resnais brings to Bernstein's heady, deeply ironic tale a style of the utmost austerity. Indeed, at the film's beginning, Resnais doesn't move from long shot to close-up for a full 6 minutes.
It's there we make the acquaintance of Marcel (Andre Dussolier), a concert violinist, seated in the suburban Paris garden (under a painted starry sky) of fellow violinist Pierre (Pierre Arditi) and his wife Romaine (Sabine Azema), whom Marcel is meeting for the first time. Marcel is handsome and worldly whereas Pierre and Romaine seem like a bright-eyed, contented pair of newlyweds of modest ambitions.
When Marcel starts talking about a broken romance, we wait in vain for the flashback to take us to Havana. It was there, playing a Bach sonata, that he realized his lover, Helene, was flirting with a man in the audience. By the time he's finished his exceedingly stormy tale, told in a mesmerizing fashion, we understand how he's made such an impact upon Romaine that she's fallen madly in love with him.
While respecting Resnais' fidelity to his source, it's still possible to feel Bernstein might have been better served by some judicious trimming. By the middle of the film, Marcel and Romaine start seeming silly and then merely tiresome.
Fortunately, there are some surprises to make us sit up and take notice, but the third act--the acts are marked by a shot of a red plush theater curtain--proves to be a reverie as eloquent as it is wearying.
Nevertheless, there is much to admire, starting with the rigor and beauty of Resnais' masterly style and embracing the superlative ensemble playing in a deliberately theatrical manner. Fanny Ardant, as Romaine's sensible, concerned sister, who doesn't appear until nearly an hour into the film, is as impressive as everyone else.
For cineastes any film by the director of "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad" is a must, but it is hard to recommend "Melo" (Times rated: Mature, for adult themes) to anyone else.
A European Classics release of an MK2 Productions/Films A2 production. Producer Marin Karmitz. Director Alain Resnais. From a play by Henry Bernstein. Camera Charlie Van Damme, Gilbert Duhalde. Music Philippe Gerard. Art director Jacques Saulnier. Costumes Catherine Leterrier. Film editors Albert Jurgenson, Jean-Pierre Besnard. With Sabine Azema, Fanny Ardant, Pierre Arditi, Andre Dussolier, Jacques Dacmine, Hubert Gignoux, Catherine Arditi. In French, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.