PRINT November 1984


WE WERE INTENDING TO MEET for days, but Alain Resnais was caught up in the final postproduction touches on his most recent film, L’Amour à Mort. This would have been one of the many talks we have had over the years of our friendship. In the summer of 1980, Resnais and I spent at least two hours a day for two months drinking coffee and talking casually in an apartment in Paris across from the Luxembourg Gardens. At the time, I often thought of taping our conversations—I even may have taken notes, especially when Resnais talked about Paris before the war (the Paris, he was sure, I really would have loved), or about a composer he was studying, or about Claude Nicolas Ledoux, the 18th century architect whose work fascinated him, and. whose building in the Pare Monceau he once took me to see—but I felt shy about it, fearing it would rupture the naturalness and fluidity of our words and make him uneasy. Yet over the years I have blamed myself for laziness and excessive timidity in not keeping a record of those talks. And although I thought to make up for those lost hours of his voice one day, I didn’t know why I chose this time, this past August, in Paris, when time was pressing both of us uncomfortably, to propose a formal interview. But perhaps it was exactly that feeling of the pressing of time and the recognition of the transformations in the life about us that brought us to record this conversation.

We were planning to talk to set up our meeting, and as several days passed without my hearing a word, the part of me that felt awkward in interviewing him was almost relieved. Perhaps the whole idea would just lapse, and we could both pretend that time had tricked us. Then one morning Resnais did phone, explaining that as he had had no new lines or jokes to deliver me and no scriptwriters to write them for him, he thought he’d wait to gather new material before calling. I volunteered to write his lines for him. For a few moments longer we continued in our usual joking vein, he in his dry, precise tone of well-mannered irony, the dramatistic elegance of Racine with a twist of Jack Benny, me in my bursting Bronxese—all punch lines and no story. But I soon turned to my customary complaining about the world at large and—for reasons I don’t recall—about the miserable, polluted condition of the Mediterranean. “Years ago you could dive there for fresh oysters. And now it’s finished, glunk and devastation; nothing can live in it.” “Ah, yes, I remember,” Resnais interjected, “in the years just after the war, I once rode a train for twenty hours and arrived on the Riviera early in the morning and we walked down to the empty beach and saw a crab moving in the sand. It was wonderful to see that crab.” He said that with the same excitement and awe he must have felt on that beach that morning years ago, and I could not help but think of the scene in Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980) when the grandfather grills for his grandson a little crab freshly caught from the waters of Brittany—the region where Resnais was born and raised. And I could not help but feel a renewed desire to record Resnais’ voice, his thoughts, before they slipped from me. We made our appointment, we met, Resnais on time, as always.

Frederic Tuten: There are thematic patterns in your work that can be traced from one film to another. Are you aware of them?

Alain Resnais: They’re unconscious—and I prefer to leave them that way.

FT: And not know why or how they happen?

AR: Yes. I think a person making a film should try not to control what it says, except on the level of dramatic pleasure. One should let things happen, through a kind of “écriture automatique.” A film is like a plant—you have to let it grow by itself, you have to respect that kind of biological rhythm.

FT: I’ve often thought the story line in your films was a pretext for the complete abstraction of imagery. That what is really important to your work is this fabulous motion and musical pacing of visual and auditory images; that what you’re doing is making the purest cinema possible within the confines of the marketplace.

AR: It’s true that the first thing which comes to my mind when I have to start a picture is a kind of abstract figure. after that I try to find a title, and after that I try to discover characters, sometimes with the screenwriters, or maybe sometimes I bring in images. It’s always a structure that’s the point of departure. Sometimes we abandon it when the story begins to be developed but sometimes we keep it—it’s not a fixed decision; I am always ready to change things. We never start with a plot. We always start with some fuzzy ideas and then a scene is written, a scene which could come, say, from the middle of the film, and little by little the thing becomes a screenplay. That’s why it’s difficult to get backing from a producer for a “good idea,” because there are no good ideas at the beginning. Regarding the issue of pure cinema, within the confines of the marketplace, as you called it—it’s not only the question of selling a film but it’s also the conviction that a film is something that must be shared with an audience. I can’t imagine a film for ten people or a film just made for us directors. Some directors say, “I need to express myself.“ I don’t feel that need at all, but if I did I think I would use essays or maybe paintings, maybe music, but not film. You have to keep in mind that the audience must stay in a dark room for ninety minutes or two hours. That’s an interesting challenge, but it does not prevent you from using scenes from your life and the lives of your friends. I like the quotation of Douglas Sirk that we put in the press book [for L’Amour à Mort]: ”One cannot make films about something, one can only make films with something."

FT: It’s always so vague when we speak about expressing ourselves because it usually implies the pejorative sense, the express ion of a self-centered autobiography. It usually means this happened to me, I did this, I lived this, like the worst of Walt Whitman, “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there." I was thinking about your work and that made me think of the paintings of Poussin. Poussin is the most seemingly impersonal of artists, the most classical. His work is built on the belief that there are principles that endure for the ages—a metaphysical science of space and composition. It isn’t based on the inspiration of the unique artist, as it was thought of in the 19th century; it isn’t like Van Gogh painting a landscape that really is an interior of himself.

AR: I have to agree that between the Dionysian and Apollonian, I am on the Apollonian side—not on purpose, but I feel fraternity with people like Joseph Haydn, Alban Berg, Anton von Webern, and Igor Stravinsky; and Poussin, yes. You know that statue in Marienbad [Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), as described in the script by Alain Robbe-Grillet? The source is Poussin. I asked a sculptor to make the statue using the feeling, the gestures, of the characters in his paintings.

FT: Was this from one particular painting?

AR: I don’t think so. But in his work there was something that attracted me. It would be impossible to change the location of a sculpture that would weigh tons, so we had to build something very light. in papier-mâché, so that it could be moved each time it was necessary. And it was necessary to do this quite often, since my script breakdown implied that the location was changing for every shot.

FT: Are there other painters you are interested in? Cézanne?

AR: Yes, Cézanne of course. Max Ernst. René Magritte, but he is so well known now.

FT: He’s like a fresh cliché.

AR: Yes, but remember the trouble he has had in being considered a real painter, because the work is so intellectual. I have always been a fan of his and of the Belgian Paul Delvaux. Each time it is possible I try to shoot in Belgium, because I think there is a kind of fragrance there that I enjoy. I am sure it is not a coincidence that Surrealism has had so many disciples in Belgium.

FT: Because we talk about you as the classicist of images, and see your impersonal parade of exquisite images, I sometimes forget the surrealist side of Resnais. But when you go underneath the pictures, they’re filled with waves of absolute passion and mystery, and when you speak of Surrealism, I think, of course. I forget, for example, that it was you who told me to read Le Paysan de Paris, the Louis Aragon book; it was you who brought me to see the park Buttes-Chaumont and talked about the Surrealists walking there at night. And I remember that marvelous evening when we went off to find Allée des Brouillards, Fog Alley. But we did not find it.

AR: We did not have a map with us.

FT: Exactly my point. There is a kind of irony to this surrealist side of yours. In fact, it’s the irony I find in your films. I say irony; you use the word dissonance to describe it, but I think we mean the same thing. I mean dissonance as a structure and irony as an emotional standstill, where we are never certain of what the emotional tone is, because at the moment we think we understand it you undercut it and make it something else, sometimes by humor.

AR: I think sometimes it is interesting to bring to the screen a kind of conflict of ideas because conflict is basic to drama.

FT: I’m thinking of that scene in Mon Oncle d’Amérique where the husband is leaving the house; he has packed up his bags and he leaves. It’s a tearful scene. The children are crying, and then you cut to an image of a giant white rat in distress and flight. When I called you perverse recently I meant that in your work there’s much more of both humor and detachment than I think people realize. What is becoming clearer to me is how you can charge a scene with immense emotion, to the brink of it being a kind of cliché—for example, that scene of the husband leaving, which is something out of a soap opera—and how you can turn around, by cutting to the rat, and take such an Olympian view of the experience. While we are in the middle of our most anguished moments we are also in the middle of our comedy.

AR: That’s why some people resent my films. They say that my characters are too unstable, and they wonder whether they are idiots or courageous or cowards. People who don’t like my work say it makes them uneasy and bored at the same time, because they are never sure exactly of my point of view, if I have a serious moral judgment to make. All I can say is that I make no moral judgments. I am just fascinated by human beings, by all the contradictions I can feel even inside myself. That’s what unconsciously could be—may be—reproduced on the screen. I am not sure of what I am telling you but I can feel in a kind of fuzzy way, a foggy way, that we are nearing something that could be exact.

FT: Of course this brings to mind Flaubert and the notion of the artist as the impersonal observer whose sole obligation is the creation of the artwork. Here is Resnais in the tradition of the artist whose religion is art.

AR: I have no faith in myself. I don’t believe in anything. I mean, anything religious. In things like that I have no faith. But I have to admit that I have a total faith in art and beauty. I could say that all my films, especially the last ones, are a kind of critique of faith. But as I said, even though I imagine myself an unbeliever, I believe in art and in love, too.

FT: I hope this tape recorder is working. Wouldn’t it be lovely after all this to find nothing? Look, Alain, I guess life is what it is, we can’t ask for something that it’s not. This morning in anticipation of the interview I was warming up my ideas and thinking about love. I asked myself whether it is good to talk about this as a theme; after all, there are so many more structurally Interesting things: the images, how the films are made. But then I thought, wait a minute, look how predominant this issue of love is in his films. No matter how much we talk about the detachment, the impersonality, the coolness of the films, there seem to be, time and again, not just figures and places in space and time, not just abstract forms against the composition of music in which you compose these events—but there are stories in which there’s disappointment in love, Almost all the films have situations where people are thwarted, disappointed, in love or by love. Almost all are triangles. It starts with Hiroshima Mon Amour [1959], where, I would say, there’s a triangle. The war is what has brought the lovers together, but it is also what separates them. It is as if there’s a third person there, the painful memory of the war, In another sense, in Marienbad there’s always something that prevents love from being achieved, except through violence. There’s either memory or there’s an action.

AR: I disagree. In Marienbad the problem is just one of conquest. I would say that usually love does not come to people who are completely free and have no links to anything, Except when you are in high school. Yes, if you mean triangle stretched in that way, I think in Marienbad there is a triangle. But the woman has to make her choice and that’s the end of it. A kind of happy end. A man makes her leave her husband and takes her with him. The husband is not a stupid, ridiculous guy, so it’s not an easy decision, but it just comes to that, so I would not say that in Marienbad the story is one of frustrated love, You can also look at the film in a symbolic way, as a kind of legend—the old story of Death who has given the young girl one year to live. When he had finished the screenplay, Robbe-Grillet discovered that his description of the garden could well have been a perfect description of a cemetery. He was quite surprised. Of course he enjoyed the idea, so we worked out the film—not with a thousand solutions, as has been written; that’s totally untrue—but with at least five or six different levels.

FT: That’s enough.

AR: All the stuff that has been written saying that Robbe-Grillet had a completely different way of seeing the story than mine is rubbish. We discussed three or four different interpretations together and after that maybe Robbe-Grillet made some public statements just for fun. That’s the way he works; he’s very tongue in cheek. He has a lot of humor, but when he works he is deadly serious. He does not joke at all about his work.

It’s difficult to say that my films are more about love than other films. after all, this is the material of 90 percent of all films. It would be pretentious to think that mine are different.

FT: But you chose these subjects; you didn’t choose comedies. This is your preoccupation.

AR: Yes, but not by choice, or by any kind of decision.

FT: OK. Let’s say, Alain, that love and disappointment in love are my preoccupation and that I’m always seeking an esthetic format in which to frame them; all the same, for any given work of art in which there is a love story the structure of drama dictates a conflict, and for there to be conflict there must be a disappointment in love.

AR: Yes, but not especially in my work.

FT: Well, the esthetic problem would be how to create a work in which love stays alive for years, without conflict, without a rupture. I mean, Alain, a work where a couple meet, fall in love, and fall more deeply in love, and remain in love throughout the entire cozy thing. In fact. I can’t imagine a novel or opera or film in which that happens.

AR: Well, it shows how illiterate you are. There was a French writer, Paul Guth, who published at least 20 books. A lot of them sold very well. I remember that he wrote a novel 20 or 30 years ago. It was just a man and a woman married, I think, who enjoyed life for more than 200 pages. There is another example which is more interesting for my taste, a play by Sacha Guitry which is called Je t’aime [1920]. It’s in five acts. In the first act the boy meets the girl and they fall in love; in the second act they are in love; in the third act they are in love; in the fourth act they are in love; and of course in the fifth act, they are still in love. This is a challenge. I took an excerpt of it for Stavisky . . . [1974].

FT: Is this where the title for Je t’aime, je t’aime [1968] comes from?

AR: No and yes. Jacques Sternberg wrote the script for that; the title came from thinking about a satellite that is lost and how it goes beep, beep, beep. My hero, my character was lost in a kind of space-time continuum, and I had the feeling that he was saying, “Je t’aime, je t’eime, je t’aime,” like beep beep beep. after that idea emerged I was a little bit worried because of the play by Guitry with the same title, but then I realized that it was a homage to him and that Guitry would not have minded, so I kept the title.

FT: You’re right. I’m illiterate. (Laughs). But I’m also a monomaniac of persistency. I still maintain that there are triangles of thwarted love in your fiIms—the triangle need not be with a third person, but there’s some interference that deflects love.

AR: I don’t think there is a triangle in La Guerre Est Finie [1966].

FT: The triangle is the Spanish Civil War.

AR: In that way, yes. But I think there is no real triangle in Je t’aime, je t’aime.

FT: Except for the morass of time.

AR: In Stavisky . . . there is no triangle except that of the crook’s work, if you call what a crook does work—being a crook takes a lot of work, takes more than for an honest man.

FT: You know, I’ve always wondered about that film. You’ve placed your work in historical contexts before—Hiroshima, and La Guerre Est Finie—and you have made documentaries of artists, Iike Gauguin [1950] and Van Gogh [1948], but you’ve never based a fiction film on a direct biography.

AR: In fact I think it would have been better not to use real names; it was the producer who asked us to use “Stavisky” as the title of that film. I felt it was a bad idea because in France Stavisky is a kind of historical figure, and people resented him being played by an actor. But the distributor said if we didn’t call it Stavisky, he wouldn’t buy it. This was at the end of the shooting, and we had no choice. All I tried to get as consolation was to add three dots after the name, to give the feeling that there’s something more, the feeling that it’s a kind of song about Stavisky.

FT: How do you mean that, Alain?

AR: I mean a popular lament.

FT: You mean in the “Mack the Knife” tradition? Alain, I know nothing about music, therefore 80 percent of what I need to ask you I can’t. It has to do with the relationship of your films to music. I don’t think I know a director who is so immersed in the musicality of his films.

AR: I don’t know anything about music, either. All I can say is that I am sure that there is a relationship between tempo and editing. I find it easy to work with composers. We feel at home immediately.

FT: It’s obvious how much you’re concerned about the music, that you don’t see it just as decoration.

AR: Thanks to the music you can say many more things, you can get emotions in one minute that might have taken ten minutes of dialogue.

FT: Do you know, while you are shooting, where you will have music? Is that already in your mind?

AR: Yes, of course, when I am shooting I know where the music will be put. It is necessary.

FT: How does it work? Has the music been composed at that point?

AR: No, but I know where I am going to use it. I think every director does that. except the director who doesn’t think music is important. I do not say that I can hear the music, but I know where I wi II ask the composer to write it for. Plus, I make special shots for the music.

FT: Do you think this happens with American directors?

AR: With somebody like Alfred Hitchcock I am quite sure, yes, and Martin Scorsese, especially in Taxi Driver [1976].

FT: What ideas do you have for future work, what would you like to do, what are your plans?

AR: I’m working with Milan Kundera on the screenplay for my next film. Then there are two American projects I’ve wanted to do for at least 15 years. One’s with Stan Lee, who created the characters Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. The other is with Harlan Ellison, who began writing his fantasy fictions in the ’50s. Years ago, when the producer discovered that Ellison, who was working like a beaver, wanted what the producer felt was too much money, he said, “We have a better writer than Ellison.” I asked, who? He said, we can get a better deal with somebody who would be better. I told them to call me when they found that man. They never called. So I consider my project with Ellison still on. But you know how it is in the film business. There are hundreds of undone projects every year.

FT: You must know that Steven Spielberg has bought Tintin rights.

AR: Yes, I was a little bit surprised.

FT: It’s strange, isn’t it, Spielberg?

AR: Yes.

FT: Several months before he died, Georges [Hergé, the creator of the Tintin comics] told me he was hoping to come to America for a big project he wanted to do. This was obviously the one. To my mind, it should have been you. You should have made that film of his book Ile noire [Black island, 1956] that you once planned. I still remember how you were going to have all those characters wear masks.

AR: If somebody can do something with Tintin it’s Spielberg. It’s interesting how we’re both attracted to the same subjects. In fact, we even have a friend in common, James Steranko. Of course, I’ve long been interested in that kind of material. Years ago I proposed a Conan film to a producer who said it was impossible, just a subject for students.

FT: You’re mysterious. I knew you loved all this freaky popular stuff, but not Conan. You proposed to do a Conan film?

AR: I would have loved to make not only that one but to make at least one kind of. crazy adventure film.

FT: So why don’t you make one? It would have all the intellectual and esthetic substance of a Resnais film plus all the fluidity allowed by a supertechnology of special effects.

AR: I don’t think I would enjoy it very much. You have to wait too long for each shot. I would not like to direct a film where the emphasis is on special effects. Adventure’s all right, but special effects, that’s very boring. The actors have less importance: you just shoot in front of black drapes making sure that things work well.

FT: Then again, what would it mean? Everyone wants to do these kinds of films—Superman, Popeye. What was once a radical notion, an iconoclastic strategy, is now a shlocky would-be formula for success.

AR: Yes, this is the kind of project that producers talk about over after-dinner drinks, and so often nothing comes of it. There’s been a project to do a Mandrake the Magician film for some 20 years now. I was once contacted about it, but I said, no, I had a film to shoot first and needed some time. “But that’s impossible, we have to start shooting in two weeks, we have to start shooting in one month,” they said. I’ve waited, but still I haven’t seen any Mandrake film.

FT: Would you have worked on a commission like that?

AR: With Mandrake, yes, but only under the condition that Lee Falk, who is the creator of Mandrake, would write and have absolute control over the script. I would never have accepted an assignment to do an adaptation, or anything like that. I remember one adaptation—the opening scene was in a nightclub, with the corpse of a girl with a knife in her chest—it’s the very opposite of the spirit of Mandrake, which is never gory, always elegant, and sweet in a way. Lee Falk actually started a screenplay. The villain was to be a man obsessed by an idea. The film opened in a building in Washington, where there are two big clocks—one showing births, the other deaths. And the villain wanted to regulate the world so the two would be in perfect balance, so that the whole world would be in perfect balance. From that starting point all bad things follow. I think he fell in love with Mandrake’s companion, Nadra—maybe you would say that is a kind of triangle!

FT: I’d say everything’s a kind of triangle!

AR: There’s yet another Mandrake saga. It seems someone bought the rights and asked Paul Newman to play Mandrake. He said he would accept if I were the director. I think that was very nice of him. But the producer said, It’s not a good combination. For Mandrake I am afraid of Alain Resnais. I need a commercial director. So Newman said, I’m out of the deal, I’m not interested. And that was that. This story may be a legend; I have no proof it happened. But that’s the way it was told to me. I think it could have been right. Paul Newman is an actor I admire very much. He could have given to Mandrake his appropriate charm and elegance. My American projects seem to go to pieces because of money.

FT: I can never understand how anyone would not find the money to do a film with you.

AR: American films especially are produced by a kind of conglomerate. Even when an American producer wants to make a deal with me he has to go and get, say, seven other people to agree. That’s very difficult, to have eight different people agreeing on the same project before it’s made. Most of my films have not been great commercial successes, so it’s log ical that a conglomerate would be cautious. It’s not something to be bitter or complain about. In a way it’s logical; I am not complaining.

FT: I’m complaining! I’m always shocked that beauty is treated so crudely. I know it’s an absurd feeling to hold in today’s world, at my age, but I can ’t bear to think that vulgarity triumphs everywhere—the more vulgar, more sleazy, more debased, the better. That mediocrity wins, that while mill ions of dollars are pumped into making witless junk-films, which turn us into capons—you have to worry about finding an amount a twentieth of what it costs here to make our usual steroidal idiocies. It also astonishes me that you can’t find producers to back you, when I always meet people in Paris who say they would do anything to make a film with you.

AR: Yes, but that’s talking. A recent example went like this: “You have a project?” “Yes.” “I want to see you on Wednesday. What is the budget?” I said it would be between 10 and 12 million francs, “Oh, that’s nothing to me. I will give you a phone call within two days. But don’t worry, it’s a deal.” After one week, he made a phone call to the producer and they made an appointment, then his secretary called and said the appointment was cancelled, but that he would call again. He never called again, and he says we did not have any agreement.

FT: Ten million francs by American standards is absolutely nothing. A little more than a million dollars is a cheap movie.

AR: Yes, but for France it’s a lot. It would be impossible to produce Last Year at Marienbad or Providence [1977] now. Providence would cost, say, 25 million francs. Last Year at Marienbad would be 30 million. I have been very lucky to have been able to do films of that sort.

FT: We’ve talked about various projects that have not materialized, but it seems to me you’ve done exactly what you’ve wanted in the films you’ve made. It’s always been on your terms. Obviously a producer who works with you wants to do so.

AR: I consider the producer somebody who helps the film, not an adversary. For example, I’ve never had an actor in my films who I haven’t admired, almost never someone who wasn’t chosen by mutual agreement.

FT: When I was 16 or 17, there was always the quest ion of Hemingway. Whenever I thought of writing a sentence it came out Hemingway. I couldn’t express a great deal of experience unless I visualized it with a Hemingway sentence. Over the years, when I’ve thought of cinema I’ve thought of Alain Resnais’ cinema and sometimes I’ve framed an experience through the filter of your films. It’s very strange. There are actual moments when I feel I’m living in a scene in one of your films, living in a static, operatic hold of Marienbad, or in a gliding, tracking, skidding swoop of Toute la mémoire du monde [1956]; a woman places her hand on her shoulder and I conceive it more from your film Muriel [1963] than from the woman beside me. It’s like my earlier experience of Hemingway again. It’s the essential truth of your undecorated grammar that stays with me after the houselights have gone back on. Alain, I’ve always wondered what led you to become a director.

AR: I never dreamed of becoming a director; it happened, but I did not do anything to become one. I just tried to be an editor. Then one thing led to another.

FT: When you talk to people about art, they have such strange ideas about how things are done. They think it’s some kind of work in which people come to esthetic decisions and then everything just moves along. They have no idea of the ordinariness of it, how realistic the solutions are. Let’s run away from it all and make a Western together.

AR: No.

FT: No Westerns, eh? Horses don’t appeal to you?

AR: I am not very attracted to mysteries or Westerns. Adventure, that’s all right.

FT: But adventure with mystery.

AR: Yes, fantastic adventures.

FT: Science fiction?

AR: Science fiction no, speculative fiction yes, as my friend Ellison, whose work I so admire, would say.

FT: Like the ones of Fantômas.

AR: But that was a possible project. They asked me, but I knew it was the dream of another director to do Fantômas, and I could not accept.

FT: So there are two forbidden qualities in your life the forbidden subject and the forbidden triangle. By the way, is there one in your newest film, L’Amour à Mort?

AR: No. Not one. But there may be many.

Frederic Tuten is a fiction writer and Director of the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York. He is the Books Editor of Artforum.