Private Fears In Public Places: Other Perspectives On The Film

Here Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd looks at the film adaptation of Private fears In Public Places by Alain Resnais and explores the significant differences between the play and the film: one intended and one unintended.

Just One Word... (by Simon Murgatroyd)
The film
Coeurs (alternatively known as Private Fears In Public Places in England and North America) is possibly the most faithful adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play to be filmed. The translated dialogue is lifted almost wholesale from the original script and has been very sympathetically handled where it needed to be altered.
Yet there is one subtle difference if you were to see the play and the film, so small you might even miss it; it is just one word, yet its significance with regard to the character of Ambrose (Lionel in the film) is immeasurable and has a dramatic effect on both our understanding of the character and the plot of the play.
In the film, the dialogue (English translated from French) reads as:

Ambrose: Ours was a good relationship and well worth pursuing and we got together again and never looked back.
Dan: And lived happily ever after.
Ambrose: Happily, yes. Sadly not ever after.
Dan: No? She walked out again did she?
Ambrose: No. She died.

In the play (scene 22), the final line actually reads as:

Ambrose: No. They died.

Just one word: “She” being altered from “they” alters Ambrose’s character and our perception of him. In the play, this oblique reference offers an insight into why his relationship with his father, as explained to Charlotte, is so troubled as the implication is Ambrose is gay. Come the final scene between Ambrose and Charlotte, this implication is strengthened when she sees Ambrose's photograph on the sideboard.

Charlotte: The photograph on the sideboard. The one with you and that other young man, was that your brother?
Ambrose: No, no. Just a friend. He’s dead now.
Charlotte: Oh, I’m sorry.

The photograph is a minor detail which adds much weight to Ambrose’s character. Taken in the context of the film, the exchange above is redundant small-talk and doesn’t infer anything - given we have been told his partner was female. But in the play, not only this line strengthen the implication of Amrbose's sexuality (and how that affected his relationship with his father), but it also significantly affects the audience's reaction to the final scene between him and Charlotte.
In this scene (in both play and film), Ambrose reports how his father has apparently hallucinated Charlotte dancing naked at the end of his bed. Charlotte and Ambrose then talk about Charlotte’s faith and as she leaves, she hands him a video; Charlotte has previously given Stewart at the office a video which has a faith-based programme recorded over a pornographic film, possibly involving Charlotte.
When viewing the film, this serves only to bring a wry smile to the face as the audience infers what Charlotte has given him.
In the play, this scene becomes slightly more disturbing. The audience, unlike Charlotte, is aware of Ambrose's sexuality and that he has no interest in Charlotte sexually. Having misread Ambrose's character, one can only imagine what Ambrose's reaction will be to seeing Charlotte in a porn video, to all intents and purposes doing what Arthur has previously accused her off but which has been dismissed as hallucinations.
To audiences of the play and the film, the video will have dramatically different consequences.

As to why the alteration took place, it was not even a deliberate change to the script, but all down to a proof-reading error. When the original manuscript for the play was given to the publisher Faber to include as part of the collection
Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 3, the word 'they' was innocently altered to 'she' during proof-reading by the publishers and the mistake never spotted. The play was published with the error and this version was used by Jean-Michel Ribes as the basis for his screenplay. Not until it was too late was the error spotted and by then it was too late to alter. Realistically, it does not affect the film as within the play it is a very subtle piece of character background and, by this point in the film, Resnais has preceded these lines with the striking scene of the conversation between Ambrose and Charlotte with snow falling around them in the kitchen.
The difference is worth noting though, although the impact of this very much depends on the actor and director. In the original version, Ambrose’s line to Dan was barely emphasised and almost thrown away leaving it for the audience to pick up; were the line to be emphasised or made explicit, it would almost certainly ruin one of the nicest subtleties of the play.


The Snow Scene: “I suppose we pass through life alone” (by Simon Murgatroyd)
The other major difference between the play and the film, accepting the change of location from London to Paris, is the final scene between Ambrose (Lionel in the film) and Charlotte. Alain Resnais chooses to set the film in a snow-bound Paris with the snow punctuating the many scenes of the film. In what is the penultimate scene of the play (scene 52), the two characters discuss Lionel’s father in the kitchen sat at a table. As the conversation moves from Lionel’s father’s apparent ‘hallucinations’ of Charlotte dancing naked to what Lionel will do with his life, Charlotte asks “Will you cope?” (1hr 49mins on the DVD) her hand moves to his and suddenly the table is covered in snow, snow falling in the room and the sound of the winter wind can be heard throughout the following scene. This continues until Charlotte announces she must go. The characters stand and the snow has vanished replaced with the expected view of the kitchen.
During the dialogue, there are several notable cuts to Ambrose's original dialogue in the play beginning with Lionel admitting he can’t accept the concept of Heaven and Hell.

Ambrose: I wish I could sometimes. It would make life very much easier to cope with. As it stands it’s a very lonely business occasionally.

This is replaced in the film by the eloquent and simple: “I suppose we pass through life alone.” The alteration in no way betrays the original intention and serves to highlight what Resanis has chosen above all to emphasise throughout the film, the loneliness and alienation of these character’s lives - given Lionel says this with snow falling around him, it is quite a bleak statement.
Intriguingly Charlotte is then made slightly more ambiguous - quite difficult already considering she is the most ambiguous and complex of the characters. In the original play, Charlotte declares that a hell-fire burns in all of us and it’s up to us if we allow it to spread and consume us, at which:

Ambrose (lightly): What even you, Charlotte?
Charlotte: Oh, Ambrose, you have no idea. You’ve no idea at all what’s within me. (rising). I must go.

In the film, Lionel’s question is met by a pause and “I must go.” Whilst again not altering the intention of the playwright or the original script, it adds a certain ambiguity to Charlotte and her intentions - specifically with regard to the video cassettes she gives out (as discussed above).
The use of snow in the movie, whatever the metaphorical purpose - be it to show how these characters are cut off or the essential coldness of their lives or whatever interpretation the viewer chooses to see - is obviously significant to Resnais. It also helps define this as a film - in an otherwise extraordinarily faithful adaptation of Ayckbourn’s play, the snow which separates the scenes and the character’s lives is totally cinematic and gives the film a distinctive visual identity.
The deeper meaning and purpose of it though, particularly with regard to the scene discussed, must always remain with the viewer to decide.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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