The three narratives are inexpressibly lyrical, and woven at once. A lavish maquette is unveiled circa 1914, next it is surrounded by flames and gunfire and inhabited by knights and maidens, maybe; one of the fairytale characters reaches outside and emerges from under tree roots into 1982, where the pre-WWI "Temple of Happiness" has become the Holberg Institute. The Exterminating Angel figures in the antique strand, where the guests of the Count (Ruggero Raimondi) are offered a new beginning after the war's devastation by trading their top hats for golden robes and druggy forgertfulness; Fanny Ardant pretends to drink the Kool-Aid and keeps a pragmatic eye on the "rebirth" ritual. The palace in the present houses a convention for professors seeking to educate children through imagination, an unseen chorus softly announces the entrance of the Italian guru (Vittorio Gassman), who disses the building's faux-Gaudí curves ("It isn't architecture, it's pastry"). Conferences nowadays are all about getting laid, it is said, yet the mere mention of romance is enough to change Sabine Azéma from Little Miss Prim to Jacques Demy warbler -- to illustrate the point, Geraldine Chaplin ("I am not a moralist. I am an anthropologist") decides to match her up with Pierre Arditi, another free-floating Pierrot. Alain Resnais watches it all with the wry detachment of Mon Oncle d'Amérique, once more baffling those who prefer their "alienation effects" free of emotional intensity. "Amour" and "bonheur" are echoed and sung about, psychobabble remains the same throughout the ages: The Count's search for a vanished harmony is as much of a faddish dead-end as the notions of happiness posited by the educators ("Double bullshit," Chaplin's daughter snaps). To Resnais it is dissonance that fuels creation, the revelatory extremes of fire and ice as opposed to the soothing evenness of the "tepid sweetness" Ardant rebels against. Utopia is folly, though human fluidity here is the stuff of both Wagnerian myth and Gallic farce. With Robert Manuel, Martine Kelly, André Dussollier, and Samson Fainsilber.
--- Fernando F. Croce