The hyper-literate ambiance and mannered execution of Alain Resnais’s (English language) Providence may be insufferable for many, but if taken in the right spirit, the film can provide a winsome diversion. It aches to be seen as a serious exploration of the creative process, but is perhaps better experienced as a gamy excuse for varieties of excessive display.
John Gielgud, in a justly famous performance, stars as Clive Langham, an aged, dying author, composing a new novel with people from his life as the starting points for his characters. Providence does not escape the clichés of the writer writing genre (or really fantasizing, because Langham never writes anything down) so much as dress them up so elaborately that we respond more to the conceit rather than the content. The novel Langham is composing takes place in a city being bombed by terrorists, where people are turning into werewolves, while Langham’s son Claude (Dirk Bogarde), Claude’s wife Sonia (Ellen Burstyn), Clive’s dead wife Molly (Elaine Stritch) and his bastard son Kevin (David Warner) circle around each other in nonsensical encounters that lead eventually to a bloody climax.
There is nonetheless little point in summarizing the sub-Borgesian plot, because it never makes sense as anything more than Clive’s projections as he shifts his characters around like an interior decorator re-arranging the furniture. The situation is really more an excuse for brocaded, bitchy rant. Impossibly arch lines such as Claude’s describing his life with Sonia as being like “a state of mutual exhaustion behind which we scream. Silently,” or Clive clucking like a complacent chicken over “the chill, obsidian fingers” of night and death, or other such gems, suggest writer David Mercer mistakes rhinestones for lapidary brilliance.
Resnais’s execution mirrors the convoluted, inward turning story and florid dialog. A dinner scene with the four novel characters, for example, shifts inexplicably in mid-scene from just the two couples to a room full of guests, while the dialog continues as if nothing happened. As the editing tricks, the camera tracks through rooms or across gardens, one lush setup following after another, here on the porch of a seaside cottage with a painted ocean behind it, there in a granite and crystal, Deco bedroom, or in a forlorn, provincial hotel. The sets by Resnais’s frequent collaborator, Jacques Saulnier, are practically a catalog of bewilderingly various design and are half the film’s appeal.
What do the ostentatious flourishes add up to? If you expect any kind of insight or psychological depth, not much beyond Gielgud’s performance. I nonetheless repeatedly enjoy Providence, partly for its gratuitously complex style, but also because Gielgud and Bogarde vent so much gleeful spite that there’s no need for anything more substantive. Their nasty exchanges echoing in the gaudy mausoleum Saulnier and Resnais have given them provide more than enough entertainment. The results are more meretricious than meritorious, but Providence manages to make pointlessness alluring.