Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) – French filmmaker Alain Resnais’s fascinating experiment with time and memory

A survivor of a failed suicide attempt is contacted by two scientists to take part in a revolutionary time-travel experiment. The man is Claude Ridder and for them he is the perfect candidate. He has nothing to lose. He has lost all will for living and doesn’t fear anything anymore. When asked why they have picked him, they tell him that a computer did. The experiment is simple. They have arranged for him to get into an odd shaped time-travel machine that looks like a cross between a gigantic, inflated croissant and the human brain and made of a material that they use to make bean bags with. The scientists guarantee that there is no possibility of the experiment going wrong.

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The experiment begins and Claude does travel back in time. But Claude takes more than a minute and the amount of time he spends in the past is almost equivalent to the runtime of the film. You could say that the film almost takes place in real time. If there is one film that deserves to be called a “cinematic jigsaw puzzle”, French director Alain Resnais’s Je T’aime, je T’aime is a perfect candidate. Don’t expect to see a coherent narrative structure as the film is constructed exactly how a human brain perceives and experiences memories. But I’m not complaining as I found to be a very innovative way to tell a story. The events are not presented to us in a chronological fashion. This unique approach was recently tried by directors like Christopher Nolan (on Memento, Insomnia and Inception) and Michel Gondry (on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

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We are not certain if everything that is happening is part of reality or if it is something that the protagonist has constructed entirely from his vivid imagination. This is where the film bears a slight resemblance to John Boorman’s Point Blank which came out an year earlier. It’s very clear that Resnais had a preoccupation with memory as this subject has been explored previously in his 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad as well. The film is also similar to Chris Marker’s short film, La Jetee, which influenced Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Claude’s memories are scattered throughout as if they are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and we are challenged to put them all together. It’s not an easy task and I’m not quite sure if I’ve fully understood the film.

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We learn that Claude was involved in a doomed romance with a manic depressive woman and also towards the end why he went to the extreme step of trying to end his life. We get a vague idea of the various other relationships that Claude must’ve had and the frustrating and conflicting thoughts that ran through his mind. By narrating the story in this way, Resnais has done a brilliant job of demonstrating the fragmented nature of memory and the role it has in shaping our lives and identity. One could only imagine the extremely challenging and nightmarish editing process that Resnais must’ve had to endure during post-production.

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