SMOKING, directed by Alain Resnais from a screenplay by French playwrights Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui, is based on a play cycle by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. It's an elegant film, unremarkable except for a series of plot twists and alternate endings, about several typically English village characters, all played by two performers, Pierre...read more
SMOKING, directed by Alain Resnais from a screenplay by French playwrights Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui, is based on a play cycle by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. It's an elegant film, unremarkable except for a series of plot twists and alternate endings, about several typically
English village characters, all played by two performers, Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azema.
The basic story is quite simple: Toby and Celia Teasdale's marriage is on the rocks. Toby is a short-tempered, alcoholic head-master at the village public school, and his wife is looking for a possible escape from her unhappy situation. Pausing for a smoke in her garden during a typically
frenetic session of house-cleaning, she strikes up a conversation with Lionel, the local gardener and handyman (exactly how handy he claims to be becomes one of the film's jokes). From this point onward, the film explores a variety of alternative fates for its characters, all stemming from Celia's
innocent smoke, each shaped differently by the vicissitudes of chance. In one variant, she separates from Toby, and goes into a catering venture with Lionel, who says he was once a baker. His pompous and multi-faceted incompetence literally drives Celia mad, with one or two further possible fates
deriving from this incident. Lionel has been having an affair with a local girl, Sylvie, who helps keep house for the Teasdales. Depending on the line delivered at a crucial stage in their relationship, Sylvie becomes either a local happy matron or a feminist journalist. There is even a broad hint
of a love affair between Sylvie and Toby, who finds her an exceptional literature student.
Like Ayckbourn's original play, Intimate Exchanges, Resnais' film stresses the role of chance in human life, ridiculing our vain belief that we rule our own destinies. The course of events is not totally random--Toby's weakness for drink, for example, always plays a role in shaping his various
futures, and much turns on the presence or omission of a kind word or gesture--but fate can only be influenced, and never determined, by human will. The loose translation into spoken French is occasionally jarring, since Ayckbourn's situations, characters, and turns of phrase are so typically
English. Toby Teasdale seems too ill-tempered to have lasted so long as head-master, or as Celia's husband, while she looks more like a fashion model than a provincial housewife (these lapses may be due to some slightly skewed, Gallic interpretation of their cross-Channel neighbors). Still,
Ayckbourn's play is well served by this nuanced treatment at the hands of one of the founders of the French New Wave.
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