Alan Resnais' Private Fears in Public Places—based on the Alan Ayckbourn play—suggests a tasteful, Gallic version of Love Actually. Constructed primarily of sharply written dialogue duets enacted by an amusing ensemble, the film makes its characters instantly fascinating; unfortunately, that tension gradually unwinds as the storylines amount to little that's coherent or credible. If the interweaving stories become a bit ridiculous, Resnais and Ayckbourn can be given a pass for their overarching, humane empathy.
The film begins in an apartment marked by a bedroom unconvincingly split into two, and the paradox of the inseparable divide stands as a symbol for many of the film's troubling but deep-seated relationships. The apartment hunter, Nicole (Laura Morante), grapples daily with her boyfriend Dan (Lambert Wilson, an ex-Army layabout lush unsure even of the day of the week. The only thing he wants out of a new apartment is a study, though he's hard-pressed to explain why.
The answer, of course, is a male retreat, a safety valve from the finality of a committed relationship. Nicole feels keenly the cruelty of Dan's insistence on this point, and his laissez-faire attitude to their future as a couple. Dan's suave bartender Lionel (Pierre Arditi) lends a sympathetic ear—it's his job, after all—but returns to his own despair at home: his ancient, nasty, bedridden father, afraid of the dark and a terror to nurses. The latest nurse, Charlotte (Sabine Azema), acquits herself more admirably than any other, a minor triumph owed mostly to her Biblical patience (in her quite moments, she returns to the Good Book for strength).
The charmingly distracted real-estate agent Thierry (André Dussollier) finds himself in uncharted territory with his secretary—Charlotte, at her day job—who may or may not be trying to seduce her boss through semi-revealing videotapes. Meanwhile, Thierry's sister and roommate Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré) forlornly submits herself to the cruel world of dating. Though often humorous, Private Fears in Public Places happily errs to the heartfelt; when the film fails its characters, it's by mining humor too brusquely at their expense.
Ayckbourn's characters want desperately to fall back in love with life. They consider the possibility that "man is an island," and mostly meet new challenges with trepidation. "I am what I am," says one. "What can we be but who we are?" Believe in forgiveness comes dropping slow on the characters, in the form of a snowfall that's possibly redemptive, but also cold (snow comes, too, through a television tube—a "promise" that's decidedly ambiguous).
In fact, Resnais annoyingly places gentle, transitional snowfall between every single scene, which is overkill since the scenes themselves make visual and verbal reference to the blinding purity that's the flip side of the black mortal void. Long before the final fadeout, we get it: both life and death are mockingly silent as to their meaning, leaving these despairing Parisians to struggle for personal connections.