Alain Resnais: 60 years of world-changing cinema

Pay tribute to the cult filmmaker behind Hiroshima Mon Amour, who died earlier this week

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Hiroshima Mon Amour

Unsurprisingly, Alain Resnais’s final film received the Silver Bear Bauer Prize when it premiered at last month’s Berlin Film Festival. Unsurprising, because the 91-year-old was the very incarnation of European modernity. Based on an Alan Ayckbourn play, Life of Riley won the prize as a “feature film that opens new perspectives on cinematic art”.

Earlier this week, Renais passed away, leaving more than 60 years of cinematic explorations and experimentation. According to the French filmmaker, each movie had to inaugurate a new cinematic form. He shot at least 50 of them.

He was 14 when he directed his very first film in the small city of Vannes, Brittany, where he was born in 1922. Shot in eight millimetres, L’Aventure de Guy was a crime story spun from Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas series. Ten years later, he directed a second movie, a 16-millimeter short surrealist comedy titled Schéma d’une Identification (“Outline of an Identification”). Both films are unfortunately lost.

After that, Resnais threw himself into a series of short documentaries and sponsored films. Two of them are particularly amazing: Statues Also Die (1953), co-directed with Chris Marker, is an incisive disquisition on the effect of colonialism on African art (half of the film was censored in France until the 1960s) and Le chant du Styrène, ordered by French industrial group Pechiney to highlight the merits of plastics but with a voiceover written in alexandrines by world-weary and cynical poet Raymond Queneau. 

This film is very revealing of Resnais’ methods. He never wrote a script himself but used to collaborate with writers (Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, to name a few) and avant-garde artists like musicians and cartoonists, whom he invited to take part in his movies. His influences were far broader than the French New Wave cinema to which he was often associated with. Unlike movie-centric directors like Truffaut or Godard, Resnais used to tap into materials as diverse as serials, operetta, cartoons, British literature, surrealism, or Curb Your Enthusiasm (Resnais worshipped Larry David).

Resnais was a master of editing, the discipline he studied at film. The director was fascinated by how editing could transcribe scrambled memories, inserting fantasy in his narrative by taking apart and reassembling fragments of time.

His approach provoked at least two game-changing deflagrations in the history of cinema. The first one occurred in 1955, with the documentary short film Night and Fog. Only ten years after the liberation of Nazi death camps, Resnais shows the remnants of Auschwitz, alternating between past and present, black and white and colour footage, while the narrator Michel Bouquet describes the rise of Nazi ideology. The world was divided between those who thought of Resnais as a bold freethinker, and those who saw him as a shameful little man for capitalising on the Holocaust. But nobody left the screening room unscathed.

Another milestone came in 1959, with the release of Hiroshima mon amour, written by Marguerite Duras. This nonlinear story, punctuated by short flashbacks, is a long series of conversations between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who have had a brief relationship but are now separating.

Resnais rejected the traditional codes of storytelling, which lead him to collaborate with the ambassador of the Nouveau Roman Alain Robbe-Grillet on Last Year at Marienbad, a hypnotic puzzle of a movie that won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival. In it, a man identified as “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman identified as “A” (Delphine Seyrig) that they had had an affair the year before at Marienbad. 

Meanwhile, Providence (1977) was a portrait of an aging writer dreaming of his last novel and starring Dirk Bogarde and Ellen Burstyn, was a direct outgrowth of the narrative experiments by the Nouveau Roman authors: the scenario is unstructured, the atmosphere is dreamlike and the very complex montage scenes squeeze out the unpredictable associations of the artist’s mind.

But Resnais hadn’t always been so cerebral; he wasn’t just a formalist. The older he got, the more playful his cinema became. Stavisky (1974), for instance, is a popular thriller with high production-values, written by novelist Jorge Semprún and featuring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a crook. My American Uncle (1980), one of his masterpieces, is a witty reflection on humans’ lack of free will inspired by the behavioralist theories of the psychologist Henri Laborit, and reveals a more impish and teasing side of the director’s personality.

But it’s mainly by using theatre (Smoking / No Smoking in 1993), musical (Same Old Song in 1997) and operetta (Not on the Lips in 2003) as a basis for his films that Resnais made his brightest work. He shot those films mostly with the same troupe of incredibly expressive actors, who like to play with a boundless theatricality:  André Dussollier, Pierre Arditi, Fanny Ardant and the muse and (second) wife Sabine Azéma.

One question remains: where to start with Alain Resnais’s sprawling oeuvre? Olivier Père, executive director of Arte France Cinema and ex-artistic director of Festival del film Locarno and Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight gives an answer on his always very exciting blog: “Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour are two milestones in the history ofworld cinema. And on a more personal level, I would mention My American Uncle, which I always found fascinating and where Resnais succeeds more than ever to mix ideas, emotions, romance and science.”

To pay tribute to the great master that cinema has just lost, the most respectful attitude would be to remember that despite his intellectual air, Alain Resnais was a true hedonist. He left us, as a testament, a wonderful injunction – the original title of his last film, Life of Riley: Aimer, boire et chanter. “To love, drink and sing.” He was the voice of reason, till the end.

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