Alain (Maurice Ronet) silently observes his lover Lydia (Léna Skerla), struggling to decipher the elusive meaning beneath the wistful, attentive eyes, lingering beyond the point of reassuring tenderness to where the potentiality of the moment of connection has irretrievably slipped away, and all that is left is the inscrutable, opaque gaze. Confronting the awkward silence, the lovers continue in their polite charade of shared intimacy: clutching at empty embraces and impassive expressions of happiness, substituting a haze of cigarette smoke for a stream of unarticulated thoughts – the sentimental inertia of an indefinable fire within – that separates them. Having spent several months confined in the safe insulation of a sanitarium for the treatment of alcoholism, Alain is reluctant to leave the facility and face the temptations and uncertainties of the outside world again, despite the encouragement of his therapist who reassures him that he is cured of his malady and that his lingering anxieties merely reflect the normal process of psychological transition to adjusted wellness. But Alain is not so certain of his ability to return to his former life. Rejecting Lydia’s proposal to return to his adoptive city of New York, away from the temptations of his self-destructive existence in Paris, he instead begins to visit each of his estranged friends in an attempt at reconnection: an intellectual (Bernard Noël) who has settled into a comfortable bourgeois existence pursuing mystical studies in lieu of searching for (and working towards) true knowledge and enlightenment; a bohemian (Jeanne Moreau) living in a squalid commune who has become resigned to a life of drug addition and suicidal recklessness; a pair of militant brothers (François Gragnon and Romain Bouteille) who, in the aftermath of the Algerian independence and brewing domestic terrorism, have decided to set their sights abroad towards joining the struggle and political agitation of other countries. Drifting through a seemingly alien and disconnected past, Alain retreats further into the emotional void of his self-imposed exile.
From the opening sequence of an immobile Alain studying the face of his silent lover as an off-screen narrator provides the contextual interior monologue to encapsulate the depth of his despair in his inability to connect beyond physical intimacy, Louis Malle establishes an intrinsic disjunction that reflects Alain’s emotional inertia and ambivalence following his figurative catharsis and rebirth. Visually, Malle reinforces this sense of stasis through Alain’s enigmatically encircled, handwritten date on his bureau mirror that commemoratively reads “July 23” and a string of photographic proofs tacked onto the walls of his private room at the clinic, documenting a logical progression of images (perhaps of his estranged wife) even as each representational frame is static and immutable. Malle further incorporates recurring imagery of relative motion as a near-still Alain is juxtaposed against people (and objects) in accelerated motion: navigating through a maze of speeding cars to cross busy streets, walking out into the unexpected sight of a cycling race that momentarily whisks by in front of the hotel, observing a crowd of people walking (and driving) past as he sits in the café, having been left behind by the Minville brothers as they plot to embed themselves for a covert operation in the Spanish underground. Through his figurative stasis and tabula rasa, Alain serves as an incisive reference point for the profound social and cultural turmoil of his environment, a foil for the carefree idealism of his generation that has transfigured into complacency, resignation, hedonism, violence, and self-destruction. It is this profound desolation that is inevitably captured in the film’s haunted postscript, a desire to erase the tainted illusion and restore to the purity of the ideal …the first gaze.
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