Though released internationally under the title Coeurs, a simple reference to the six lonely-hearts that populate the film, the U.S. release of Alain Resnais' Private Fears In Public Places takes the original title of Alan Ayckbourn's play, which better evokes its graceful dichotomies. Ayckbourn and Resnais collaborated before with 1993's Smoking/No Smoking, which told two variations on the same story, but here, the dividing lines are much more subtly integrated into the writing and the direction. As the film plumbs deeper into its characters—all lonely, single Parisians well into adulthood—it reveals the mysterious partitions that exist between and within them. Much like Smoking/No Smoking, Private Fears is a determinedly minor work, even by French standards, building to few life-changing revelations and an ending that's more like a sigh of resignation. Yet 84-year-old New Wave stalwart Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) hasn't lost a step with age, and his decision to shroud the action in constant snowfall gives the film a surprisingly magical air.
The six principal characters—save for another who's only heard offscreen, there are no other speaking parts—are within a degree of separation, but not all of them meet. André Dussollier plays a real-estate agent who longs for his pretty assistant Sabine Azéma, a pious Christian who lends him videotapes with secret erotic content. On the side, Azéma moonlights as a home care worker for the cantankerous father of Pierre Arditi, who works nights as a hotel bartender. Lambert Wilson plays one of Arditi's regular customers, a recently discharged army veteran whose floundering relationship with fiancée Laura Morante has driven him to drink. Anxious to put his life back on track, Wilson places a personal ad that attracts the lovely Isabelle Carré, a shy bachelorette who lives with her brother Dussollier.
Each scene in Private Fears is a distinct unit, often connected by a superimposed snow flurry, which may expose its origins as a play, but nonetheless enforces the distance between these characters. Resnais lets the metaphor get away from him a little—the snowbound transitions put the point across more elegantly than the ever-present partitions within the scenes—but he otherwise never presses for effect. He and Ayckbourn care primarily about observing these characters' private and public faces, who they are and who they present themselves as. To that end, they've achieved a mood of enchanting intimacy.