“You don’t seem to care.”
“No. What else can happen to me?”
Upon leaving the hospital after a failed suicide attempt at the start of Alain Resnais’s 1968 film Je t’aime, je t’aime, Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) is confronted by two strange men who ask him to get in their car and travel to the Crespel Research Center, a mysterious facility they freely admit that no one has ever heard of, located some thirty miles away. “Let’s go,” he replies indifferently, despite having no idea what they want with him. What initially appears to be a kidnapping or some other crime turns out to be something far more unusual: They want to use Claude as a guinea pig in a time travel experiment.
Up until this point, the Crespel scientists have only experimented on mice, sending them into the past for a minute at a time. Recently, at least, those tests have been successful — they note that it’s been over a year since one of the subjects exploded, which isn’t exactly the most reassuring statement in the world — but, unable to communicate with the rodents, they have no way of learning exactly what happened. They need a human being, and who better than a man who doesn’t care whether he lives or dies? Although Claude sees the situation clearly (even if the scientists insist that he was selected by a computer), he agrees to take part.
Following several days of preparation, Claude is placed inside a dome resembling a brain, where he reclines on a large cushion. He’s been given a drug called T.5. that will make him passive but semi-conscious and lucid, able to remember what he’s experienced afterwards. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be sent back exactly one year in the past for sixty seconds, and then he’ll return to the present — but it’s evident from the start that something is amiss. His body keeps disappearing, reappearing and disappearing again, and the scene from his past, in which he’s snorkeling during a vacation on the Riviera, is fragmented and repetitive. Before long, other moments from Claude’s life start to appear in no particular order, many only a few seconds long. Some are dramatic, some banal, some pleasant and some painful, some professional and some personal, but the dominant theme that emerges is his seven-year relationship with a woman named Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), a relationship that’s now irrevocably finished.
“Why go into the past instead of the future?” Claude asks when the Crespel team is explaining the experiment to him. They acknowledge the intelligence of this question, but their methods aren’t that sophisticated yet. Besides, as is so often the case in Resnais’s films, the past is a vital force, ever-present, possibly inescapable. The time travel depicted in Je t’aime, je t’aime is of an odd variety, in that Claude has no power to alter the events of his earlier life, though a few of the scenes are jumbled or otherwise affected by his current state. (A laboratory mouse even shows up as he lies on the beach with Catrine, much to his confusion.) All he can do is witness these scenes, impotently reliving his many mistakes and regrets as well as the love he’s lost forever.
His years with Catrine were hardly a period of undiluted joy — quite the contrary. While there are moments in which the two of them are shown as either blissfully happy or quietly content, there are just as many that illustrate how troubled their relationship really was. He talks of leaving her, but can’t bring himself to do it; instead, he sleeps with other women, then tells Catrine that he’s still attracted to her in spite of this behavior — a claim that does nothing to alleviate the pain his infidelity inflicts on her. She’s a sensitive, depression-prone, fearful woman, seemingly unsuited to the realities of the world: unable to keep a job, bored by other people, without friends or family of her own. Claude, it appears, is her life, or at least her life’s focal point, but even their happiest times together become a source of sorrow and dread. “It’s frightening when you’re happy,” she says. “To think one day you’ll lose it all is unbearable.”
She worries, too, about being a burden to Claude, and it’s true that he sometimes sees her that way, albeit not for financial reasons. He’s hurt by her profound discontentment, something he understands all too well. “I can’t help you. We’re too much alike,” he tells her. That doesn’t stop him from trying — at one point, for instance, he keeps an acquaintance’s death a secret from her for a full eight months, lest it upset her — but his protection can only go so far. Moreover, he’s no saint, as his dalliances with other women demonstrate, and he often finds her neediness and vulnerability confining. He can be selfish; he can be unkind. What he can’t do is change anything.
“I’ve been afraid all my life, for no good reason. But I’m not afraid now,” Claude tells the scientists before the experiment begins. As far as he’s concerned, the future is empty and meaningless, Catrine’s great fear realized. Asked how it feels to be alive after his suicide attempt, he responds, “It doesn’t.” It’s almost comforting to him, this lack of feeling, since he seems to be beyond the worst of it — but the past lives on with all of his old emotions and memories, good and bad, and as long as he lives on, he can never escape it.
This post is part of the Time Travel Blogathon, hosted by Wide Screen World and Silver Screenings. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.