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One of cinema's masters finds the right genre In Je t'aime, Je t'aime

Movie history is short (106 years and counting) yet Alain Resnais' special place in it is apparent in his 1968 film Je t'aime, Je t'aime showing at Film Forum (Feb. 14 to 20).

More than 50 years since his feature-length debut Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Resnais has continued an innovative, serious-art approach to movies, overcoming many different fads, failures and successes with such masterpieces as Last Year at Marienbad (1962) and the breathtakingly inventive Muriel (1964). Like Godard, Resnais has outlasted the peak, competitive years of European cinema, still playing with cinematic form and the intricacy of the mind and time.

Still on top, Resnais' past three films Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs), Wild Grass and You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet are the most daring, adventurous and entrancingly beautiful movies so far this century. Critic Stuart Lee memorably cited You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet as "Heavy to wear but gorgeous like a Chinchilla coat." That assessment recognizes Resnais' esthetic richness and emotional profundity--both still evident in the Film Desk's reissue of Resnais' light, ready-to-wear Je t'aime, Je t'aime.

Often described as science fiction, Je t'aime, Je t'aime (1968) is actually, in uniquely Resnaisian terms, an intellectual love story: A suicidal publisher Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) takes part in a scientific experiment to go back in time where he relieves his amatory past and inconsolable mourning for a lover Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot). Irredeemably geeky film critics insist on categorizing the artistry of Je t'aime, Je t'aime in familiar generic terms--as if it trod the same territory as Computer Chess or Shane Carruth's Prime and Upsteam Color. Resnais looks higher: the scientists who submit Claude to experimentation as if he were a lab rat are too narrow-minded and boyish to see the romantic tragedy that obsesses his soul and memory.

Je t'aime, Je t'aime takes a droll approach to Resnais's experiments with time and consciousness, as if teasing his own hyper seriousness. But the constant experimentation with montage has a purpose: kaleidoscopically viewing all sides of a sexually adventurous but morally perplexed man's existential dilemma. As the pathologically resigned Claude lies sedated in the scientists' plush cell (womblike interior and testicular exterior), his memory literally takes him back into his past but his spirit awakes. It's one of those infernal French movies that can't help examining masculine privilege and its regrets, which puts Je t'aime, Je t'aime into an entirely different genre than what superficial critics claim.

It is a tragic romance, droll yet touching in the same way that Rich's performance goes from hollow to heartfelt (while Georges-Picot, alas, is but one Rich's charming if typically sexy femme fatales). Recently, comparisons have linked this film to Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I prefer seeing connections with Shane Carruth's attempt to explore modern pathological thought in Upstream Color; Resnais is as aware of man's guilt and self-loathing, but he doesn't succumb to easy nihilism. The title Je t'aime, Je t'aime is like a Chinchilla coat: it clues viewers to the profound warmth--the essential human need--that is at the root of Resnais' artistry. The drollery here replaces Resnais' usual flash and luxe but spiritual confrontation gives it substance.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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