No Smoking

(France/Italy/Switzerland, 1993, 146 minutes)

Not one but two separate yet interlocking films, adapted from British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, a little-seen tour de force that provided its audience with one of 16 alternative endings depending on the night they would see the production. Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui’s script whittles the original endings and divides the original play into two movies, both taking up from the exact same starting point: in the Yorkshire village of Hutton Buscel, Celia, the local headmaster’s wife, is doing her Spring cleaning and takes a small break in her garden. In Smoking, she picks up a cigarette; in No Smoking, she chooses not to, and this is where both films diverge. Smoking follows Celia and her destructive relationship with her alcoholic husband Toby, No Smoking opts instead for Toby’s best friend, Miles, who harbours a secret passion for Celia while living a miserable marriage with his unfaithful wife Rowena. If it sounds complicated, there’s more to come as each film provides seven possible endings, both feature exactly the same set of nine characters and all roles are played by the same two actors, Resnais regulars Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma. While you may at first wonder what is Nouvelle Vague deconstructivist Alain Resnais doing adapting an Ayckbourn comedy, as each film unfolds you realise that he has found yet another way to exercise his singular talent for experimenting with the conventions of narrative cinema; the concept manages to transcend its apparent novelty value to harbour a clever and disturbing reflection on the bitterness of human relationships and the roles chance and decision play in each person’s fate. Amazingly, Resnais chose not to hide the theatrical origin of the source material: as both actors play all the roles, there are never more than two characters on screen at any point, and the films were entirely shot on soundstages, the English countryside being superbly recreated by production designer Jacques Saulnier and photography director Renato Berta. Arditi and Azéma soar in all of their roles, which demand very different registers; Resnais couples his cutting-edge experiment in narration with a deliberately accessible, boulevard comedy tone. The only drawback is in the length: at two and a half hours, the gimmick grows a bit weary before the end, but it’s certainly worth the wait. Either film can be seen independently of the other, you don’t have to see both and you don’t have to see any one first, but it is advisable to see both for the full effect.

A Pyramide Distribution release. Bruno Pesery and Michel Seydoux present an Arena Films/Camera One/France 2 Cinéma production, supported by Canal Plus, Centre National de la Cinématographie and Procirep, in co-production with Alia Film and Vega Film. Starring Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma. Directed by Alain Resnais; screenplay by Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui, based on the play Intimate Exchanges by Alan Ayckbourn; music by John Pattison; director of photography, Renato Berta; production designer, Jacques Saulnier; costume designer, Jackie Budin; film editor, Albert Jurgenson; illustrations by Floc'h.


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