The French film Private Fears in Public Places never grabbed me in a big way, but I’d say it kept my attention better than the majority of subtitled films I’ve written about so far. The deeper it got into the film, the more I cared about the characters, and in the end it struck me as an intelligent, psychologically insightful movie about loneliness and human relationships.
It’s about loneliness but mostly not aloneness. It’s about people’s inability to establish anything like the kind of important relationships—romantic, sexual, whatever—they crave, even though they’re surrounded by, and even interacting daily with, countless people wanting the very same thing. The movie is well-paced, it’s not without its moments of humor, and the dialogue is sharp, so by no means is there a dreary overall feel to the proceedings, yet there’s an unmistakable sadness at the heart of the film.
It is the story of the interlocking lives of six Parisians.
One woman helplessly watches her relationship with her fiancé gradually crumble when her assertiveness and nagging prove poor fits for his laziness and tendency to spend the day and evening drinking at a hotel bar instead of trying to find a job.
After they break up, he, with false bravado, puts himself back on the market, eventually making a reasonably promising connection through a personal ad. His getting falling down drunk on their first and only date doesn’t sink him, but ironically a subsequent misunderstanding does.
His date, who had so briefly gotten her hopes up, before and after that has little social life beyond going out in the evenings and sitting by herself in a coffee house, miserable that she’s alone and doesn’t know what to do about it. She’s ashamed to admit her plight to the older brother she lives with though, leading him to believe she’s enjoying herself with “the girls” when she goes out.
He envies her for even the level of social connection (he thinks) she has, because he has even less. There is hope though when a co-worker seems to be sending him decidedly sexual signals, but when he clumsily attempts to follow up, he’s baffled by her acting as if she has no idea how he could possibly have read the situation as he did.
In fact she knows perfectly well, but she’s playing a little game for her own titillation. She’s worked out some odd compromise in her mind as a devout religious person that she can get her kicks being a tease and an exhibitionist and participating in fantasies, as long as she doesn’t ever cross the line into actually doing something.
She moonlights as an in-home caregiver, helping out a man who has moved his elderly father (who suffers from ill health and a much iller disposition) in with him, after doing the same for his dying mother for several years. He has little or no social life of his own. He reaches out to the caregiver, in his tentative, formal, respectful style, to see if there might be some potential there, but gets nowhere.
He works as a bartender at the hotel bar where the first man spends all his time. The drunk tries to convince himself that they are friends of a sort, but the bartender treats him with a weary disdain, though always masked by impeccable politeness. So there’s no connection there either.
And so they live their lives, unable to take advantage of the relationship opportunities that seem so much more available than they really are.
Though the antics of the exhibitionist woman will add some levity to the film for some, that’s the one aspect of the movie that didn’t ring true to me. I thought it was kind of funny at first, but it struck me as a bit too much of a situation comedy gag to be an ideal fit with the rest of the film.
Actually what most hit home with me about her character is that she is the only one who doesn’t seem all that dissatisfied with her life. Her superficial, cheesy, non-connection connections—her sex without physical contact—are apparently enough for her for now.
In a way I found her embracing sham connection to be sadder than the characters who are more aware what they are missing in life and lament it.
The other element that has an aspect of humor to it—which I think works fairly well—is the crotchety old man in his sick bed. The movie uses the Vera Peterson/Maris Crane device of never actually showing the character. Instead you just hear him breaking things and hurling the vulgarest of insults from his bedroom.
All-in-all, it’s not a movie I’d rank real high, but Private Fears in Public Places is thought-provoking and emotion-provoking enough for a mild to moderate recommendation.