Last Year at Marienbad (1961). All photos courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art Film Still Archive.
Perhaps more than those of any other modern director, the films of Alain Resnais are synonymous with European art cinema. Hailed as groundbreakingly innovative and intellectual, his films are also lampooned as elliptical, poetic, and populated with impeccably dressed characters adrift in inexplicable existential dilemmas. In truth, Resnaiss legacy soon to be displayed in a traveling retrospective remains intact.
Often crowned the theoretician of the French New Wave, Resnais was in fact the most schooled in actual film production. While his cohorts Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, et al. were busy raving about their favorite directors for Cahiers du Cinema, Resnais had been working as an actor, editor, screenwriter and assistant director on industrials and occasional features throughout the 40s and 50s. And his early films were odd 16mm, black-and-white documentary shorts focusing on art and artists, such as Van Gogh, Guernica and Gauguin.
Rarely revisited, these shorts, Resnais scholar James Monaco suggests, "strangely mirror the features he was later to shoot in the 60s," foreshadowing his complex treatment of documentary, time, memory, postcapitalist imperialism and, most importantly, the role of the artist. Throughout his career, the artist and, by extension art itself remains a central concern, either in the form of homages in On Connaît la Chanson to Dennis Potter, in La Vie Est Un Roman to three French filmmakers, Melies, LHerbier and Rohmer or as character ( in Providence); or in the form of creative collaborations (with poet Jean Cayrol in Night and Fog and Muriel, novelists Maguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet in Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year in Marienbad, respectively, or cartoonist Jules Feiffer in I Want to Go Home).
While Godard and others attempted to rewrite cinema through the style of Hollywood B-movies, Resnaiss obsession with memory, time and psychological subjectivity continues a French tradition expressed in both the philosophy of Henri Bergson and in the novels of Marcel Proust. In his documentary short Night and Fog Resnais leads a hallucinatory journey into the Nazi Holocaust through use of archival footage and a poetic subject. In his first feature, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, he turned his technique around, using a faux-documentary style to examine the real and ethical aftershocks of the A-bombs blast. By the time of Resnaiss 1961 masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad, history has collapsed into the fashionable relics of the European spa in which his nameless lead characters rewrite the story of their relationship (as well as any expectation of a coherent cinematic syntax) with each new scene.
In the almost 40 years hence, Resnais has continued to challenge our comprehension of film language. And the force of his early innovations led the way for many filmmakers to push their own boundaries and assumptions. To celebrate an upcoming travelling retrospective, we invited several American filmmakers to speak about Resnais and his influence on their own filmmaking practices. Peter Bowen
"The Films of Alain Resnais" will be at The American Cinematheque in Los Angeles from May 6 through 16 and at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York this fall.
|Emmanuelle Riva And Eiji Okada In Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)|
Chris Münch on Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which concerns a French actress and her adulterous affair with a Japanese architect while she is in Hiroshima making a film about peace, is among my favorite films because its words and images are so poetic and unforgettable.
In Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung wrote that he had "encountered an extraordinary number of dream reactions" to the film, and this declares something essential about Resnaiss metier as an artist who, like Jacques Rivette and Nicolas Roeg, has sought to free cinema from the linearity with which we often experience time and memory, and grant it permission to do what it does best: express ideas associatively across time, as in a dream. That such a dreamlike work is also so literary is a triumph.
When I first watched the film in my own dream of my early teens, I was struck, as I am today, by Resnaiss masterful handling of essentially static dialogue scenes, in which each composition is absolutely appropriate for its emotional weight, with little movement. The clean modern lines of the hotel where Emmanuelle Riva stays are contrasted not only with the curves of two lovers naked and entwined, but with the twists and turns of two rivers, the Ota and the Loire, and the gnarled plane trees of Nevers, to which Rivas troubled memory of a German lover returns many times.
An understated score by the always intriguing Giovanni Fusco accompanies some of Marguerite Durass most beautiful words: "The seven branches of the delta estuary in the Ota river drain and fill at the usual hours, with water that is fresh and rich with fish, gray or blue depending on the hour or the season. Along the muddy banks people no longer watch the tide rising slowly in the seven branches of the delta estuary of the river Ota." In some of the accompanying images made at dawn or dusk, the thinness of the negative reminds us that there is almost nothing there, that these pictures have been elegantly fixed in silver as if by alchemy: and herein is revealed, in a small but significant way, the utter inability of the much-touted electronic media ever to record light in just this fashion.
In our present epoch of denatured cinema, when only a producer willing to lose a great deal of money would mount such a production as Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it is worth remembering that there was a time when filmic art was not only avidly practiced by men like Resnais, who were rightly held up as masters, but encouraged by a world audience that had yet to devalue excellence or dismiss the primacy of images to tell a story as a dream.
|Gerard Depardieu in Mon Oncle dAmerique (1980)|
Keith Gordon on Mon Oncle dAmerique
When Mon Oncle dAmerique came out in 1980, I was 19 years old, a confirmed movie buff and a wannabe director. Id seen my share of experimental and surreal films, but there was something about this film that floored me. I ended up going back to see it at least five times in its first New York run, dragging various friends.
What struck such a deep chord in me was the way Resnais used seemingly contradictory elements: distance and emotion; surrealism and naturalistic performances; a real on-camera scientist-narrator explaining human behavior and subtle story lines that transcended this approach to "behavior in a box." The effect wasnt just ironic, or moving, or funny, or tragic, or sharp social commentary, but somehow all those things at once. And rather than undercutting the different possible ways of looking at the characters, the mix made each using the heart, the head, the gut even more true. The film taught me, as much as any ever has, not to be afraid of letting disparate moods, tones and styles run up against one another that by deconstructing narrative, by playing with conventional perceptions, there is a chance to do something more than just create an interesting experiment or an anarchist manifesto. There is a chance, by forcing us to look at storytelling in a new way, to get closer to characters, to truths and, ultimately, to our own hearts. I may never be able to do it as well as Resnais his mixture of boldness and sensitivity was amazing but I see quiet echoes of this film in everything Ive done since.
Radley Metzger on Je TAime, Je TAime
Alain Resnais must be acknowledged as a powerful and lasting influence on filmmakers of the last half of the twentieth century.
Although he was technically a product of the French Nouvelle Vague revolution of the 1960s, his style and content set him far apart from contemporaries like Vadim and Godard.
He was the first filmmaker to achieve critical and commercial success with a highly personal combination of realism and memory. Picassos Guernica was finally fused with Joris Ivenss film The Spanish Earth.
There had been previous hints before (such as Stanley Kubricks The Killing), but Alain Resnaiss first feature, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, buried forever the strict linear narrative rule of storytelling. Writers and directors have been drinking from his trough ever since.
His work could not have existed in any other medium: it was pure film.
And if youve ever wondered at how truly creative time travel can be, you need only look for the mouse in Je TAime, Je TAime.
A review of my film Therese and Isabelle once referred to the director as "a pale imitation of Alain Resnais."
I took that as a compliment.