PRINT Summer 2014


Alain Resnais

Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour, 1959, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes. Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Lui (Eiji Okada).

IN A TRIBUTE to the great Left Bank filmmaker Alain Resnais published shortly after his death at ninety-one on March 1, fellow director and sometime collaborator Agnès Varda remarked that he was a cineast who proved his love for filmmaking to the very end of his life. Indeed, Resnais’s last film, Aimer, boire et chanter (Life of Riley), had premiered at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival—where it won the Alfred Bauer Prize (given to a film that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art”)—less than a month before his passing. It was the nineteenth feature-length work he made over the course of a career that began in the late 1940s and spanned eight decades.

In a late interview in the French film journal Positif, Resnais spoke of his sensitivity to the melancholy of his source material, Alan Ayckbourn’s play Life of Riley (2010). Over time, Resnais mused, all our lives are failures. But his ghostly final film is, to the contrary, an extraordinary success—a virtuosic reflection on life, fiction, and misperception that in its self-referentiality induces the viewer to remember and review the full sweep of Resnais’s filmmaking. The director has spoken of a conscious influence on Aimer, boire of a staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull that he saw in 1939 at the age of seventeen, and the film certainly shows Resnais’s own work at its most Chekhovian. For critic Philippe Royer, the heart, the honey, of Resnais’s films is his use of artifice to reach the real, his sensing of the spectral in living beings. The languor of the light in this film, the lovely blue, green, and radiant yellow of its painted sets, its illuminations and shadow play, saturate the film in sensations matched only by the precise, animated work of Resnais’s actors, Sabine Azéma above all, who conjure vanity, fragility, and human frailty so powerfully. Aimer, boire’s ultimate shot, morbid and humorous, shows a death’s-head placed on George Riley’s coffin by a young girl, a last lover.

The passage between life and death long preoccupied Resnais. His awareness of the dead and of their insistence in the lives of the living, and of the capacity of cinema as a medium for reflecting on this commerce, this debt, is perhaps his most extraordinary contribution to world cinema. One immediately thinks of his controversial, coruscating 1955 Holocaust documentary Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog). Critic Serge Daney, in a passionate acclamation of the film, argued that cinema like this (and perhaps cinema alone) was capable of approaching the limits of a distorted humanity. For historian Sylvie Lindeperg, Resnais’s film initiated a process of mourning for the “orphans of the deportation.” It is the editing of the film, its labile shifts between still images and moving footage, and its disturbance of scale, of distinction between animate and inanimate matter, that give its reflections on genocide a viselike grip on the viewer. If Resnais’s deployment of archival material has its detractors, Claude Lanzmann among them, the film has also been seen as questioning the evidential force of the real, amid myriad uses and abuses of images of the body, of torture, of desecration as they appear on celluloid.

These questions are pursued in Resnais’s first feature, the unimpeachable—and devastating—Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Here the director collaborated with novelist Marguerite Duras, whose lush, sonorous screenplay allowed the filmmaker to nest his film about atomic destruction in a story of eroticism and mourning from occupied France. A donation of material by Resnais’s long-standing script supervisor, Sylvette Baudrot, to the Cinémathèque Française includes letters and postcards from Japan that he sent to Duras as he sought out the real settings she was imagining in Paris, making the genesis of the project newly evident. The finished film opens in the arms of two lovers in Hiroshima, the large-scale, morphing images of luminous flesh announcing the sensuality and modernity of the work to come. If Resnais looked back to the forms of Surrealist photography and to the sensuousness of Abel Gance and silent cinema, his work finds contemporary echoes in the work of Bergman and Antonioni. The Frenchwoman (Emmanuelle Riva), Duras’s heroine in Hiroshima, recalls lying across the dying body of her German lover in Nevers and, as his breath left his body, finding not the slightest difference between her flesh and his, only resemblance. Hiroshima mon amour is a film about the living and the dead: Aligning two traumatic contexts, the bombing in Japan and the occupation in France, it shows them to be utterly incommensurable, as Deleuze has remarked. Resnais is not interested in fixed answers or known relations; instead, he opens spaces for sensing, for acute consciousness, for reflection. The film weighs how two individuals in Hiroshima, a man and a woman, may yet come to some reckoning with death, violence, and forgetting, through what they say and do not say as they make love.

Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour are both films in part about France, about modes of collaboration under the occupation, and they were both made deep in the shadow of the Algerian War. They hold tight relations with the two further masterpieces of this, Resnais’s starkest, most breathtaking era: the hermetically beautiful L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) and the piercing, almost savage Muriel ou le temps d’un retour (Muriel, or the Time of Return, 1963). From his early collaboration with Chris Marker on Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), their film about African art, an analysis of French colonialism that was long censored, to his documentary about the Bibliothèque Nationale (1956) and his short about a polystyrene factory (1959), Resnais used film in part to disclose the fascism and racism imbricated in the structures of French society and culture (as critics Edward Dimendberg and Steven Ungar have discussed). His optic looked beyond France alone, however, and, like Marker, he may be seen as one of those filmmakers whose perspective was international, indeed marked by an unbordered attention to otherness, to dislocation, to étrangeté, to being a stranger, to the strange, and to the uncanny. His first reckoning with art and war was a tiny film about Picasso, Guernica (1950). He pursued this attention to the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath in La Guerre est finie (1966), a film marked by jarring flash-forwards. Marienbad, its self-enclosed mirroring and hush a commentary on all that could not be spoken about Algeria at the time of its making in France, in its composite building of a sanatorium hotel from images of different palaces around Munich, and in its terminal uncertainty, speaks volubly about dislocation across Europe in the last century. Resnais’s films find forms to reflect a shifting map and displaced territories. He once said that, when traveling, he liked to visit the places that are most uncharacteristic of a given city, that most resemble and recall another location. His one foray into sci-fi, Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), was set in Glasgow but shot in Brussels. The location of his Providence (1977) is no clearer, despite its title, and in this beautiful, desolate work—a film about dreams of dying and dissection, taking place in the mind of novelist Clive Langham (John Gielgud)—Resnais moved further toward the internal, artificial modes that mark his later career, as he increasingly chose studio settings and stylized action.

Resnais differs from his Left Bank contemporaries, Varda and Marker, in his apparent turn away from the world, and from politics, as his work progressed. His attention was always more finely drawn than theirs to states of mind, perception, the smallest shifts of knowledge and affect. His focus by the ’80s began almost to exclude the noise of the world. This interest in interiority is traced most self-consciously in his film about the nervous system and human behavior, Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980), in which three subjects are explored as case histories, their threaded lives touching like the monologues in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931). Despite this interest in the interior, the subjects who inhabit Resnais’s films necessarily remain unknowable however closely we attend to them: We never hear the man’s story in Hiroshima, and this is perhaps what he chooses; we are faced with all that is not recorded, that is unreachable, in the horror of Muriel’s torture in Algeria; the lovers in Marienbad never exit the shimmering, repeated play of their masochistic contract (as film historian Keith Reader has shown so well), retaining their uncertainty about what may or may not have happened the previous year. Resnais’s films look back to those of Max Ophüls in their elegy and artifice at the same time that they look forward to the play of the virtual in the work of Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Exploring the infinitely fine folds in the human psyche, addressing our opacity to ourselves and to others, capturing the allure and terror of the intimation of other lives we might have led, other choices we might have made, Resnais’s films discover cinematic modes of representation that hold and give form to feelings. This is perhaps most lavishly the case with his use of tracking shots: The mobility of the camera is used to transport us, to parade reality before our eyes, to flood our senses. The signature shots of his films suggest passage—through the precincts of Hiroshima, for example, as the woman speaks of her desire to be devoured and deformed; or from ruin to ruin as the relentless moving camera passes by the destroyed South Bronx blocks at the end of Mon Oncle d’Amérique. There is in Resnais’s filmmaking, witnessed here, an attention to rhythm that is, I think, unmatched. It is felt in his finding of the exact time needed, from one image to the next, for the viewer to be moved bodily, to be made to yield to all that the films impel us to sense and imagine.

Heightened sensitivity, sureness of touch, and unfaltering artistic integrity beribbon Resnais’s career and now ensure his legacy. In the words of a Cahiers du Cinéma issue just appeared: “Alain Resnais à jamais.” Alain Resnais forever!

Emma Wilson, a professor of French literature and the visual arts at Cambridge University, is the author of several books on French cinema, including Alain Resnais (2009).