“Sour” is certainly a keyword for the concocted situations this unforgiving patriarch authors from his deathbed, in which he features omnipresently as puppetmaster, rewriter, and manipulator of who’s on screen, but not at all, until the very end, as a living participant. It’s clear, in fact, that he considers himself in all practical senses dead already: when the family doctor intrudes on camera and manages to hog a close-up or two, Gielgud’s Clive (who provides an acrid voiceover for most of his own imaginings) wants him yanked off screen, but next casually wonders if the cadaver this minor character is in the act of examining might even be his own.
For the ensuing 90 minutes or so, until a structurally crucial coda breaks the spell, we are almost entirely in Gielgud’s devious hands, and his performance, both vocally and during our intermittent bedside visits, is deeply comfortable with the English idioms of literary conceit, waspish character assassination and grandiloquent gamesmanship, sufficiently so that we never doubt him as the plausible author of what we’re given to see. The question that does remain is whether what we’re seeing was worth authoring, and indeed worth watching. Providence gives such a disproportionate amount of its screen time over to the curdled theatrics of an old man getting his own back on his fractious kin, by fictionalising and intentionally misrepresenting all of their implied relationships, that it risks sabotaging the most basic audience connections to who these people are, and why we should give a damn. In particular, Clive’s feelings about his son, a successful lawyer who spends the first major scene viciously haranguing an accused soldier for the illegality of a mercy killing, are so inexhaustibly contemptuous that Dirk Bogarde has no choice in how to play the part: spitefully and archly, up to the hilt, in what has to be a sustained act of virtual self-parody. It’s the only possible approach to the character, and you can hardly fault him, like almost every scene which Gielgud allows him to preside over, for being perfectly unbearable. The accused soldier, Woodford (David Warner), becomes a puzzling hanger-on in a grey turtleneck pullover for most of the movie, until we twig that he’s a version of Bogarde’s half-brother in disguise, whom Gielgud entangles in semi-romantic trysts with his other son’s American wife (Ellen Burstyn) just for the hell of it; and the fifth major character is a mistress-figure called Helen (Elaine Stritch), recruited into proceedings out of the blue because of her close resemblance to Gielgud’s suicidal wife Molly, whom Stritch also plays, at one point switching roles without warning in the space of a scene.
The enigmas about life, death and art one would hope this meta-fiction might spawn and illuminate, far from proliferating as richly as they do in something like Synecdoche, New York, remain curiously stifled here if they’re given any real birth at all. Really, the movie, which is to say the construct Gielgud intends as a memoir but which we’re experiencing as a movie, is hammering away at one tone – venomous camp – and giving its characters almost interchangeable aperçus to deliver, which vary from the distantly witty to the merely brittle and pompous. It becomes hard to separate the conceit of the Gielgud character in doling these out from the conceit of the script, by playwright David Mercer, in letting him dole out quite so many, and in general getting so carried away with the Nabokovian possibilities of handing over responsibility for authorship to a “literary genius” so full of unquenchable contempt and schadenfreude. If the whole edifice comes across as smug, Mercer can blame it on Clive, but enduring it is such a chore that we may not feel inclined to let either of them off the hook.
Nabokov, and Kaufman, manage to stretch and massage their narrative gambits, to offset the dangers of self-satisfaction by making them pliable, allowing other viewpoints to intrude, or letting their similarly hermetic visions balloon to the point where they burst and backfire on their own authors. Mercer just plonks us in the same toxic biosphere for seven-eighths of a movie, not bothering with air conditioning, and it’s a real disappointment that Resnais lets him get away with it so easily, abetting the general sense of imprisonment with greenish-hued hothouse lighting, ostentatiously “artificial” outdoor sets, and oppressive interior décor with paintings by HR Giger and others adorning the walls above white curving marble steps that compositionally trap the eye. Drawling and drinking endless glasses of chilled white wine, the enclosed quartet of characters lounge on beds, sometimes gesturing towards taking their clothes off, but thinking better of it: “I don’t smell sex,” comments Bogarde on finding Burstyn and Warner together. “Has there been any?” Once or twice, Mercer’s imagination rises to the occasion of its own self-congratulatory, sinister weirdness – sorry, Clive’s – as when Warner admits to being particularly troubled at having an erection, proffering the simple explanation: “It’s not mine”. Gielgud is determined to foist Freudian relations between Bogarde’s Claud and his own mother, more or less, and to cuckold him using his bastard brother, and to make all this lot regularly swap identities to fire off fresh volleys of accusatory bile at each other, so why not have them share sexual organs as well?
The film’s intermittent cleverness, and the kind of deftness you’d expect from Resnais with its interior rhythms, erasures and transitions, makes it possible to justify almost everything it’s doing with this or that crafty strategy, but it offers few workable solutions for the actors, other than Gielgud, to navigate through it with anything like nuance. Thrusting his role into one hissy key, Bogarde, if anything, has the best of it; Warner can’t help making his mostly-inconsequential wannabe-astronaut Woodford into someone we simply want booted out, and Burstyn, whose doleful daughter-in-law is admittedly and accurately described as “opaque”, seems particularly lost, wanting to oscillate between bitter self-absorption and a faraway pathos, but hitting her lines as if she can’t quite decide.
Only in the final scenes, which switch into an altogether softer and more lyrical mode as the whole clan, minus Stritch, gather for an al fresco birthday lunch in Clive's honour, is some balance and integrity restored: we feel we’ve stepped outside Gielgud’s scribbled revenge fantasies and entered a closer approximation to the reality of these relationships, or else a more gently-delineated alternative vision of how he’d like them to be. Burstyn and Warner don't particularly register in these scenes, but Gielgud suddenly has three other players to respond to, and Bogarde is an instant revelation, an entirely different, sadder and more anxiously loving figure who nonetheless feels himself a disappointment to his father and wishes it were otherwise. Watching him downplay this final section, pretty masterfully even by his standards, is not only a relief after the preceding assault, in which he’s often felt like a supercilious MC who hates his job, but provides an entirely new-found way into the movie, from the deferred perspective of a son grievously misunderstood by his father and given no credit for wishing they were closer. Whether Resnais and Mercer have a clue what they’re doing in making us wait so long for this metamorphosis, and whether it truly rescues the remainder of the film or makes it feel like even more of an exasperating waste, will be questions each viewer answers for themselves. All I can say is that having found long chunks of Providence basically purgatory, I came out with at least half a sense, salvaged at the last minute, both maddening and tantalising, that it was purgatory on purpose. C