They are rightly proud of their achievement; but it is a limited one: they put the mouse into a past they know nothing about. What is it like there? What exactly is its experience? They are curious, but their experiments do not take them very far; and in fact they can go no further. If now a man… They search for someone prepared to take the risk; someone, they think, who has lost all interest in life; a failed suicide seems a good idea.
How many films are set in Belgium? And what do we think when we think of this small country? I see an odd place. No, not quite. The culture is odd, but the place is genteel, and attractive; and slightly overblown – the buildings in Brussels a little too large and grandiloquent for country as small as this. The first time I visited I thought it was Paris’ forgotten country retreat; dressed in its 19th century finery; albeit somewhat worn and slightly shabby. Inside these large buildings there are some strange characters. There is obviously Magritte, and his humour seems quite national: he (and perhaps we can extend it to all of Belgium) is the Mannequin Pis of European culture. There is nothing like the kid sister cocking a snook at one’s sophisticated bigger brother.
Is that why Alain Resnais set the film here? Is France too serious for such a piece as this?
A recovering suicide is offered a chance to return to the past, in a scientific experiment. There are dangers, but the scientists talk them down: yes there are some risks, and yes he must sign a release, but it will be all right, they assure him. He doesn’t care. There is no big crisis; no large comments on small abstractions, on the meaningless of time if you can traverse it easily. He doesn’t care about any of that, he doesn’t care about anything at all; OK I’ll do it, a shrug is his one answer. He seems more willing than the mice; a strange man indeed…
The laboratory is on a country estate; and it seems to take an age to get there: potential trespassers discouraged by the distance to make it to the main buildings; is one thought as we watch the Citroen transverse the fields. Everything looks so ordinary on the outside; only the white coats give anything away. Claude is shown the control room and the time capsule. The control room is like some primitive electronic studio. The time capsule is a strange beast. It is like… an old and squashed brown leather football, or some enormous human organ, or perhaps a dented and slightly squashed pumpkin - in the car on the way to the estate he had talked about such a vegetable.
To enter the past he must be relaxed, almost semi-conscious, so they fill him full of drugs. He is laid down on an odd sort of bed; it is like a soft rubbery rock that shapes itself around his body. One minute one year ago. This is his destination. The machines start in the control room; and suddenly he is there; in the sea, swimming with snorkel and glasses. He stops. He swims again, returning to that same initial moment, swimming in the same sea, with the same snorkel and glasses. He stops again. And returns again; until walking out of the water he talks to a pretty woman, telling her of its monsters and dangers… and this happens again and again. Each sequence begins to be just a little different, until we arrive in the main part of the film.
The experiment is not working. He is supposed to spend one minute in a designated moment of time, exactly one year ago. Instead he is jumping in and out of different times; no longer fixed into one timeslot. A few seconds in the water; now he is with a pretty woman lying on the beach in her black bathing suit; seconds later he is getting out of the water; then he is swimming again; now he is talking about the same things until he leaves this idyll behind, and he is going all over the place… We have now reached the core of the film: seven years compressed into a few small scenes; a collage of disjointed fragments; a love affair gone stale and wrong.
There is a clunky quality to the film, especially at the beginning, where the jump cuts don’t feel quite right. It reminds us that this is an experiment (perhaps for the director too); a sophisticated operation but one that is still quite primitive. And for a while I wondered why this elaborate conceit. Instead why not deal with the problem of memory in a different, more realistic, less jarring way… But he needed this strange metaphor; he wanted to show that memory can kill, and so he needed it externalised. He wanted to demonstrate that memory is something that happens to someone; that it has a life of its own, and it is not under Claude’s control.
Catrine was a beautiful woman. And she loved him; but was completely detached from life, caring about nothing else. They met in an office where he was the manager. She was the first member of staff he knew who had no interest in the work. Beguiled by her he quit his job and they became lovers. Seven years they were together, but at some point it starts to go wrong; though we are not sure why - he has an affair but that could be effect rather than cause; and to his mistress he says he killed her. When she doubts him he says he didn’t but he did… She died in Glasgow, when the gas leaked… Did she do it herself, because he was leaving her? Did he know the gas was leaking when he left the room… One of the dangers of the past is that we create it. We cannot quite remember, and our fantasies start to intrude; they even take over completely. He is trapped in the past, lost to their last year together, when it all went wrong; eventually to collapse into nothingness. He tries to return to the surface, to the present time, to the country estate; at the end it seems he will do it, there are moments the technicians are hopeful… But these waters are dangerous, there are sharks and jelly fishes, as well as sea horses; he told us so, right at the very beginning. He has lived too long in the past, and he knows it too intimately.
He is no longer interested in life. One day it became too painful, and he tries to kill himself. Full of guilt over his dead lover, he was, we surmise, flooded with emotion, drugged up and spun out on failed love. A man staggering through life in a semi-conscious haze; all the fancy buildings and sunshine days left behind in the recent past of six, nine, twelve months ago… or even earlier, perhaps, to when it all began; and when the real danger started. He returns to those days before he met her, when time seemed to be quite still; the boredom of work when minutes are transformed into hours.
Time has become an excruciatingly slow carousel that goes round and round the few brief scenes you have seen so many times before. You cannot get off and touch and feel them; you cannot hold them… Strapped on to that crazy horse around you go, as the images, like the faces of a crowd, laugh and wave and shout... But you cannot get off and greet them. A large part of you doesn’t want to leave that horse; to give up that terrible yearning that takes the will away, leaving your mind to float in the past, anchored to just a few memories, that are now controlling you.
He killed her, he believes. And he revisits their last meeting time and time again; looking for the proof for this belief. For most people these images will gradually fade, and the carousel will slow down and stop. But Claude doesn’t want the machine to stop; he wants to believe he killed Catrine; until it is too late, and he is lost. Trapped in a past he will never escape.