Providence (1977): Alain Resnais’ First English-Speaking Film, Starring John Gielgud and Ellen Burstyn

“Providence,” Alain Resnais’ first English-speaking film, continues his lifelong exploration of time and memory and their impact on the perception of the past, present, and future, which are not clearly divided. An intellectually provocative film, misunderstood by many critics when it came out, in 1977, it’s also a witty, meditative essay with darkly humorous tones about the interplay of literature, film, and music.

Based on a script by playwright David Mercer, better known for his scenario of Karel Reisz’ 1966 “Morgan: A Subtle Case for Treatment,” with Vanessa Redgrave and David Warner, the film centers on a dying novelist, Clive Langham (splendidly played by John Gielgud), who struggles to cope with his family, in two realms, the fictional-imaginative and the more realistic one. The occasion is rather Bergmanesque (“Wild Strawberries”): Clive is celebrating his 78th birthday.

Clive lives alone in his country estate in Providence, Rhode Island, battling alcoholism, the memory of his dead wife, and a chronic disorder. At night, he struggles to write his last novel, basing the characters on his children. In this malevolent fiction, his son, Claude (Dirk Bogarde), and daughter-in-law, Sonia (Ellen Burstyn), are unhappily married and endlessly bickering. Another, illegitimate son, Kevin Woodford (David Warner) is a former soldier on trial, prosecuted by Claude, for killing an old man who turned into a werewolf. Claude is the prosecuting attorney, but the defendant is acquitted, and soon falls in love with Sonia.

The film’s opening is deliberately enigmatic. We slowly realize that the images we see of inconsistent characters moving through a shifting dcor are in fact a first draft of a novel on which Clive is working.

The increasingly inebriated Clive decides to give Claude a mistress, but the character he creates, Helen (Elaine Stritch), is the image of his dead wife–an older woman with a terminal disease, whom Clive continually mistakes for her prototype. As he labors to complete his vengeful narrative, characters disintegrate, delivering each other’s dialogue and hopelessly confusing the story. Hence, when Clive’s children pay a birthday visit, they prove to be vastly different from the novelist’s imagistic representations of them.
The first hour is dark and gloomy, showing patrols hunting down an old man. Wounded and suffering, he turns into a werewolf, begging to be killed. Later on, we find out that these segments are set inside the mind of the dying novelist. Alone at night, in pain, the anxiety-ridden Clive drunkenly plots a novel about his family, jotting down notes, which we see in the guises of his fictional distortions of reality.

But despite passages of ambiguity and moments of horror, “Providence” is one of Resnais most optimistic films. In one bravura shot, the idyllic ambience in conveyed through a 360- degree pan around the novelists garden.

The critic Molly Haskell has noted the prevalence of death in all of Resnais’ films, beginning with the docu “Night and Fog” and the fictional “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” in the 1950s. In this picture, the motif is expressed in the notions of the novelist’s deceased wife and his own obsession with rapidly declining health and weakness of the flesh.

Like other Resnais works, it shows the director’s concern with the traditional virtues of order, harmony and coherence, and the impossibility to realize them completely in both reality and fiction. Stylistically, Resnais uses stills to depict the arrest of time, with the camera often moving elegantly through foliage

Quite disappointingly, “Providence” was both misunderstood and underestimated by critics, including the N.Y. Times estimable and usually reliable Vincent Canby, who unfairly described the film as a “disastrously ill-chosen comedy,” with a style that’s “cold chic.”

Densely rich, “Providence” makes allusions to other films, including Rebecca, also set in a closed estate, werewolf films, Terrence Rattigan melodramas, all films for which the distinguished composer Miklos Rozsa had done the scores, and here contributes one of his most resonant ones.

John Gielgud renders an astonishing performance as the old man, who has imposed on his family his fears and guilt about a lifetime spent in philandering, selfishness and disinterest in his own family, while enjoying the status and reputation as a writer he never really deserved.

The film is not without faults, and once the story embraces its Oedipal themes, it becomes less interesting and more conventional. Unlike previous Resnais films, which have multiple points of view, “Providence” offer picture has only one version of events, that of the novelist.

The film reflects Resnais’ belief that traditional narratives, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, are impossible to achieve, as history is never fixed, and time never stays still. What matters to him is subjective truth, not what “really” happened, but what is perceived to have happened and how it determines the present in a fluid inescapable way.

Cast

Clive Langham (John Gielgud)
Sonia Langham (Ellen Burstyn)
Claude Langham (Dirk Bogarde)
Kevin Woodford (David Warner)
Helenr Wiener/Molly Langham (Elaine Stritch)
Dave Woodford (Denis Lawson)
Dr. Mark Eddington (Cyril Luckham)
Miss Boon (Kathryn Leigh-Scott
Mr. Jenner (Milo Sperber)
Karen (Anna King)

Credits

Running time: 104 Minutes

Produced by Yves Gasser, Yves Peyrot, Klaus Hellwig
Directed by Alain Resnais
Screenplay: David Mercer
Camera: Ricardo Aronovich
Editor: Albert Jurgenson
Art Direction: Jacques Saunier
Costumes: Catherine Leterrier, Yves Saint-Lauren, John Bates
Music: Miklos Rozsa