The science-fiction film Je T'aime, Je T'aime opens with a sad-faced man walking out of his Paris hospital. A cab waits for him at the curb. But before he enters the taxi, two serious-looking men accost him. They want him to go with them to some secret place. They promise that they are not kidnappers. The sad man, whose name is Claude Ridder (Claude Rich), agrees, enters their car, and is taken to the secret place, which turns out to be a lab where scientists are experimenting with a time machine. They want Claude to enter the machine and travel a year back into his past, stay there for just a minute, and then return to the present. They assure him that the operation is safe. They have tested it on a mouse and it survived. But the mouse can't tell them anything about the past it experienced. Claude is also informed that he was selected for the experiment by a computer. He is statistically the best man for the job. He also attempted to kill himself with a gun not too long ago. This is why he is so sad.
The time machine is ugly. It has none of the sterile and geometric beauty of the spaceships and mainframes in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey—a film that was made the same year (1968) as Je T'aime, Je T'aime. The time machine looks like the head of a mutant fly. The scientists do not explain how this ugly thing works. The drab look of the lab and the dry comments made by the scientist make it very clear that the director of Je T'aime, Je T'aime, Alain Resnais (the recently late auteur behind two great works of French cinema, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad), is not interested in the science of time travel or the futuristic spectacles most people expect from a science-fiction movie. Also, going back just one year does not, to be honest, sound that amazing. A year ago looks very much like the present. Can one even really tell the difference? Everyone and everything will look exactly the same. You can even confuse a year ago with a year ahead in time. So, what is this film about, if it has no special effects or even fascinating scientific concepts about the nature of time and history? We find out soon after Claude enters the machine and goes back a year.
While Claude is being transported, something goes terribly wrong, and he experiences the past not as an orderly sequence but as random moments that begin and end abruptly. Now he is running on a beach. Now he is in an office. Now he is having sex. Now he is walking down a street in Glasgow. Now he is caressing the leg of a beautiful woman. Now he is sitting on a bench with a beautiful and melancholy woman. Now he is back on the beach. Now he is underwater. Now he is back on the beach. Now he is in the present, screaming in the dark for the scientist to get him out of this maddening machine.
Je T'aime, Je T'aime, it turns out, is not about time itself but cinematic time, and the way it's edited. The movie has a story. It's about a romantic but complicated relationship Claude has with a woman named Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot). This story, however, is completely and wonderfully scrambled by the malfunctioning time machine. And so one of the pleasures drawn from watching the film is that it activates and fuels our human desire to clear up puzzles and restore order to narrative messes. The great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky once called cinema the art of sculpting time. With Je T'aime, cinema is the art of scrambling time.