Smoking / No Smoking (1993)

Comedy / Drama / Romance


Smoking / No Smoking photo
In a village in Yorkshire, Celia Teasdale, the wife of a school headmaster, is busy with her spring cleaning. Venturing out into her garden, she considers whether she should light a cigarette or not. Little does she know that her decision will result in two totally different outcomes. When she decides to smoke a cigarette, she is visited by Lionel Hepplewick, the school caretaker who has agreed to help out in her garden. Celia confesses that her husband no longer loves her, that he has taken to drink and risks losing his job. When Celia returns to the house, Sylvie, her maid, appears and tries to engage Lionel's interest... Now, if Celia had abstained from smoking that cigarette a different set of circumstances would have arisen. Miles Coombes, her husband's best friend, arrives and starts commiserating with her over her husband's drunkenness and professional lapses. In fact, this is just a pretext, for Miles is secretly in love with Celia...
© 2012

Film Review

If there is a single unifying theme to the incredibly diverse film output of French auteur Alain Resnais it is a profound desire to go beyond surface impressions by extending the frontiers of cinematic expression.
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Smoking / No Smoking is Resnais's most flagrant and ambitious attempt to do just this, a highly stylised diptych which runs to almost five hours and explores how the seemingly insignificant decisions we make can have major repercussions, not just for ourselves but also for others. Resnais's most challenging film (it's advisable to watch the two parts of the film on two separate days rather than in a single sitting) is also one of his most inspired - the nearest thing that cinema has so far given us to those Choose Your Own Adventure books that were so popular in the 1980s (the main difference being that Resnais forces us to run through every one of the wretched scenarios!).

The film is actually based on a series of eight plays collectively entitled Intimate Exchanges, written by the English dramatist Alan Ayckbourn in 1982. The plays start from the same place, involve the same set of characters, but depict sixteen possible endings resulting from decisions made along the way. Resnais's version, skilfully adapted by the successful writing team of Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui, reduces the number of outcomes to twelve, dispensing with two segments which were felt to be "too British" for a French audience, namely one involving a cricket match, another a Medieval pageant.
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As intended by the play's author, all of the characters (five female, four male) are played by just two actors, in this case Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi, who had previously appeared together on Resnais's La Vie est un roman (1983), L'Amour à mort (1984) and Mélo (1986).

Smoking / No Smoking has many artistic virtues but its main strength is the remarkable contribution from its two actors. Anyone not familiar with Azéma and Arditi is easily deceived into thinking that each character was played by a different actor, so brilliantly do these great talents delineate their characters and give them a very different look and identity. One of Azéma's most outrageous characters, a feisty black-stockinged nymphomaniac, is a dead ringer for Isabelle Huppert, whilst Arditi risks being mistaken for Serge Reggiani and Jean Bouise in two of his portrayals. Colourful and, occasionally over-the-top, as the performances are, both actors succeed in rendering them believable - even the firebreathing dragon Miss Pridworthy, who is just one letter short of the most inappropriate double entendre in history.

Today, 3-D cinema is the big thing, but Smoking / No Smoking is a more interesting attempt at bringing an extra dimension (namely free will) into a film drama. By running through umpteen different scenarios the film allows us to see each of its characters from a slightly different perspective, and we thereby gain a much deeper understanding of who they are. By the end of the film, you feel that you know the main characters intimately, far more so than if you had just watched one of their trajectories through time and space. Just as an object is revealed to us only by seeing it from different vantage points, so the characters in this film appear to take on a heighted sense of reality that they would not have had in a more conventional film.
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It's surprising that since Resnais made this film there hasn't been a spate of imitations, although there have been a number of films which look at the consequences of single decision (the best example being Sliding Doors (1998)). Resnais's film (or rather Ayckbourn's play) has the basis for a cracking television series, each episode showing a different series of outcomes arising from different decisions made by the same cast of characters. Why hasn't it been done...?

Another aspect of Smoking / No Smoking that is worth examining is its overt theatricality. Rather than conceal the film's stage play origins Resnais goes to great lengths to stress these. The film's design appears to be closely mirrored on that of television plays of the early 1980s, with artificial sets which have an unmistakable 'studio feel' about them, long takes (longer than is normal for a film made for the cinema) and performances that are mid-way between the cinematic and the theatrical. The film even looks as if it was recorded on videotape, giving it an unmistakable 1980s television look (the acme of artificiality).

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Increasingly in his later years, Resnais would deviate from naturalism, even introducing such unlikely elements as musical numbers and cartoon characters, in his efforts to develop new forms of cinematic expression. Smoking / No Smoking is arguably the director's most successful attempt at departing from the conventional form to create something that is both satisfying and original. The film won the Prix Louis-Delluc in 1993 and was nominated for nine Césars, winning five awards in the categories of Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Pierre Arditi), Best Writing and Best Production Design. Subsequently Resnais would adapt two further Ayckbourn plays, as Coeurs (2006) and Aimer, boire et chanter (2014). Smoking / No Smoking is easily one of Alain Resnais's great achievements, a daring excursion into the wonderfully weird. It does require some stamina and commitment to watch in its entirety, but the effort is definitely worth it.
The above article was written for and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.

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The director Alain Resnais also worked with the actor Sabine Azéma on the films Mélo (1986), On connaît la chanson (1997), Pas sur la bouche (2003), Coeurs (2006) and Les Herbes folles (2009).

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