“Frivolous Existential Genius” And “Moralistic Functionaries”




2 Clips from “Providence” (1977)


Alain Resnais and John Gielgud (Clive Langham) are preparing a scene on the set of “Providence”

Between a father and his sons – between Clive and – Claude and Kevin, the democratic culture stumbled and falls. Of course, the fall of such a massive socio-political edifice as culture takes place not immediately – as would a building collapse under bombs, but step by step, not letting people to rush to notice it (life deserves to continue regardless of the conditions!).

For several centuries novelists and philosophers were highly respected socio-cultural authorities – inspirers of democratic ideas and tastes. But in the last decades of the 20th century the laws as legalistic structures were gradually impregnated with protective functions towards the extreme strategies of profit-making. Democratic ideas of free competition were pushed aside and out, and monopolistic principle of market domination became the real driving force of an economy. Economic democracy began to look like despotism of the strong players who (through excess of profit achieved through drastic reduction of taxes for super-rich as governmental policy and also new super-strategies of profit-making) were able to support politicians which were promoting them back, and the permanent financial elites began to develop above the life of the majority, as it was in pre-democratic industrial systems. Social dynamism couldn’t form according to free and pluralistic tastes of the population but started to follow just few and selective channels of technological innovations based on intensified production of high-tech electronic toys distracting people from reading, thinking and spiritual development and high-tech military technology. Many lawyers have been transformed into tails and tongues of dukes and marquises of wealth as a mighty bureaucracy supported by the entrapping entrepreneurial spirit of the times and massive tax-payers’ money at the service of private investments. In the field of technical sciences the situation is similar – profit-makers decide how to use scientific discoveries and which branches of science should be financed. Profits of the financial elites makes decisions whole humankind depends on. What we just described is the context, in which the life of Clive’s two sons – a lawyer and an astrophysicist, formed itself in its cardinal difference from that of their father. And still, Claude-the lawyer and Kevin-the astrophysicist are not the worse human beings if to consider that they live in a condition of post-cultural feverish corruption making democratic truth out of game. Kevin is a good-natured escapist idealist, but Claude who is not serving private wealth, develops juridical intolerance toward violators of the law and justice fetishism.

Fictional and scholarly prose-writers and poets were the carriers of secular spirituality that opposed to the social power rooted in weapon-and-wealth and enforced by the reflexes of ideological moralism and economic oppression through austerity-strategy. Writers argued in the name of (subjectively felt, but not necessarily subjective) truth, while lawyers either in the name of particular interest, or misbalanced (exaggerated, softened or misnamed) truths, as Claude does. Here is the difference between Clive (the father) and Claude, democracy and post-democracy, the essence of things and their technicalities.

Here is the difference between – how Clive (John Gilgud) and Claude (Dirk Bogarde) pronounce their words. Clive’s words are delivered by his psychological wholeness (by his holistic personality). In the very emotional coloration of his speech feelings are not necessarily in full harmony with his ideas and rationality, but in interaction with them, like his heart influencing and being influenced by his mind and the other way around. In Claude’s speech, on the other hand, words are crowded in his mouth like a chewed mass before being swallowed, his existential emotions are not rooting it. His words are, as if, orphans and are secondary – colored in mannerist way. While Clive’s speech is existential, Claude’s is functional. While Clive’s discourse is full of jouissance, Claude’s is concise and to the point, minimal. Dirk Bogarde as Claude uses a specific manner of pronouncing words, as if, they are for swallowing, not for being released – flying out free from the mouth. This very manner, as if, underlines Claude’s speech as an artificial behavior (colored by the substantial degree of uncontrolled narcissism).

Where Clive’s talk is emotionally spontaneous, almost anarchical, Claude’s is ordered and obedient (agreed with a formality of law), where Clive’s talking is almost frivolous Claude’s is moralistic. When Clive’s speech is focused on the essential Claude’s is oriented on the cliché and anti-individualistic. Claude expresses aversion for the improvised self-expressiveness, and it‘s a symptom of what is exactly anti-democratic in Claude’s very sensibility. But, of course, between Clive and Claude there are Molly and Sonia (Claude’s mother, and his spouse), the abused woman and the liberated one, the woman who suffered her femininity and the one who had asserted it (but in a conventional – political emancipation sense), a victim and the adapted one. Can we see much progress in it, when emancipation is touched by superficiality and artificiality and as such quite an ambiguous?

Are lawyers today, in a post-Clive universe, a subspecies of technical specialists, while jurisprudence – of technical sciences, as soon as (serious) writers were an incarnation of humanistic and humane approach to life? Lawyers are cognitive masters of contested truths and technical – casuistic logic, while the 20th century writers in the tradition of 18-19th centuries were critical intellectuals of poly-subjective truths.


Cultural legacy of Providence as existential location of independent critical truth and the destiny of persistent spirit of inquisition in his father is in the hands of Clive’s son (Dirk Bogarde), a famous lawyer and a person in love with his wife Sonia (Ellen Burstyn).


At what is the old writer, Clive Langham (John Gielgud), a spiritually independent soul and an incredible personality with his incorrigibly challenging views looking at? At his death? No, he is too elegant and intellectually paradoxical for this. In fact, he is looking at human life locked in an impossible – barbaric mass ideologies (like exceptionalism and superiority) and crude behavioral patterns (like rituals of consumption and entertainment and primacy of militarism over culture). He knows that he’ll not see all of this already soon, and this makes him even more focused, though already in a superfluous, utopian way.


Clive is doing what he has always done – for most of his life – he is thinking about human and societal life and history, about the psychological state of human beings. It is obvious in this shot that without the wine of immortality, in his own words “this exquisite chill”, it would be very difficult to hang onto an even minimally optimistic perspective.


Clive feels the coming end of not only his own life but all the sophisticated and seriously humane dreams of the previous epochs.


Clive still enjoys the sarcastic remarks of his own verbal exchanges with himself.


While holding in front of himself the photo of his wife Molly, Clive gives himself to the only way of feeling objective unity with her who committed suicide few years back. By placing his still vital gaze on Molly’s gaze as if at him from her photo – in the same visual space, Clive is, as if synchronizing their gazes.


Clive imagines himself as he will be soon


Clive having a bout of torments with processing his own survival which is more and more bothersome and unattractive.


Clive is preparing for a near future. He has to agree with what, according to his words, he “disapproves“.

Clive’s family


Look at Claude Langham (Dirk Bogarde), the elder son of the main character of the film – look at the emotional pain in his eyes. Why is Claude suffering so intensely? Here, he is looking at his half-brother Kevin, an astrophysicist (who is illegitimate son of their father). Of course, what we see is visualization of literary imagination of the father, the writer (Clive Langham – John Gielgud). But what is the point for Clive to concentrate in his final book on the hidden hate Claude has for his father’s “bastard” child, his younger brother who is a cheerful and kind-hearted person without any animosity? Claude’s dislike for Kevin is made obvious in the film, but it doesn’t correspond to the image of real Claude (not as father represented him as a character of his novel), whom we see in the final part of the film where Claude impresses viewers with his goodness and positivity. It seems that Clive in his book (and Resnais in his film) are really concentrated on the phenomenon of hidden hate – the one which in real life is hiding itself behind the other self-expressions. What is this hidden hate and why should it be so important for Clive Langham-the writer and for Resnais himself? Hidden hate can be more potent than obvious one. One of the examples are the militaries on our side – we don’t perceive them as hating people, haters of our enemies, and they themselves usually don’t express yourself as such, we see them rather as defenders of our country, as patriotic lovers. Another example is the behavior of the 1% of super-wealthy – occupied to the obsessive degree with money and the ways of money-making. But very quickly it becomes apparent that these people’s money obsession is based exactly on hate if we focus on the social consequences of their accumulation/appropriation – on policies of austerity for the majority of population, on principle of internalizing/privatizing profit and externalizing/socializing cost of their business. In other words, other people and nature have to suffer exactly because of their obsession with money. The third example is Claude himself – a successful lawyer, a rational person and a dedicated family man, but not only, according to his father’s intuitive sensitivity. Of course, Claude doesn’t do many unattractive things usual for today’s bill-mills (billionaires/ millionaires), but the issue in his case is a question of being intolerant to other people. Isn’t hidden hate more and more important as characteristic of our civilization, when destruction of life takes place not so much directly, but indirectly, for example, as a destruction of the very environment of life – air, water, food, or the destruction of human soul through consumerism and entertainment? We are already getting a little bit closer to understanding Clive as a writer, Resnais’ film and Claude’s a bit megalomaniacal righteousness as a psychological defense against massive moral disappointment not only in today’s society, but also in his own irresistible father.


That’s how Resnais personifies Clive’s idea of Claude’s unconscious projection of his feelings about his “illegitimate brother’s” (Kevin – David Werner) inferiority.


That’s how Clive imagines himself in his old age – old, culturally outdated, lonely and hunted/hounded and hiding in the forest. Pay attention to the impeccably young hand on the trunk of tree, which represents such contrast with Clive’s condition that it can be felt by him, as if it is pulled-out saber over his head.


Clive imagines the situation, when Claude (his elder son-the lawyer) is questioning in the court, on the side of prosecution, his younger son Kevin, who felt compassion towards the old man and didn’t want to kill him, his father, in the forest.


Clive always likes to talk with Sonia (his daughter-in-law) and be in her company. Her closeness, somehow, unburdens him from his intellectual rigors and contradictions.


During lunch on the day of his birthday with his family Clive cannot resist serious criticism of Claude’s political position and moral principles.

Clive Langham’s last birthday


Clive’s family celebrates his 78th birthday. We see Clive himself (John Gielgud) at the top of the table. To his right arm – Sonia, Claude’s wife (Ellen Burstyn). To Clive’s left hand – Claude (Dirk Bogarde). And to Claude’s left arm – his half-brother Kevin. Farther we see the castle’s senior cook and her husband – the majordomo.


Clive is enjoying his guests – his two sons – Claude (Dirk Bogarde) to the right, and Kevin (his son out of wedlock) – David Warner (on the left), and Claude’s wife Sonia (Ellen Burstyn).


Clive between Claude and Sonia who is trying to keep Claude from intervening into the bristling currents of his father’s ironic wit.


The composition of the still suggests Sonia’s “amorous respect” for her husband’s father, for his profound stubborn mind and talent for sublime fury and philosophical improvisations.


After the “last supper” Claude and the other guests leave the table, one at a time, following the request of the old man. Claude’s last gaze at his father.