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RESNAIS, ALAIN : 1922 – 2014

Nick Roddick reflects on one of cinema’s late, great contemporary masters.

Alain Resnais, who died last weekend aged 91, just three weeks after his latest film, Aimer, boire et chanter (Life of Riley) premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, has always had the slight whiff of ‘difficulty’ about him. But he wasn’t at all: what he was interested in, in a career that spans 65 years, was cinema as a visual medium that has too often been forced to forget that fact and get on with telling a story. If you want to see how far this can go, try the English-language Providence (1977) starring John Gielgud or, above all, the scandalously overlooked Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), his most audacious film on a subject suggested to him by the great cinematic poet Chris Marker.

Last Year in Marienbad

Resnais’s masterpiece, L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, 1961), which has a reputation for being complex, intellectual – and, yes, difficult – becomes instantly understandable when seen as a series of formal games and compositions, a lushly beautiful piece of visual seduction rather than a story about bored aristocrats drifting a round a rococo chateau. Significantly, the script for Marienbad was by novelist (and occasional filmmaker) Alain Robbe-Grillet, experimenter extraordinaire and standard-bearer of the ‘nouveau roman’ movement.

"a filmmaker of enormous intelligence"

Resnais was a filmmaker of enormous intelligence (which is far from the same as saying he's an intellectual) with an enduring curiosity about the entire process of filmmaking, from subject matter via performance and editing through to the moment when an audience encounters the finished film. To watch a Resnais film is to engage in a process of assembling the information you are presented with - the work of a director who entices rather than confronts his audience, demanding an emotional response to an intricately crafted seduction.

Born in Vannes, Brittany, in 1922, Resnais was never really a part of the French New Wave, which he predated by a decade - his first short was made in 1948 – and outlived by a considerable measure. And, in that long career, he had time to explore many aspects of filmmaking, exercising swerves along the way that have perplexed critics in search of a signature. It's hard to see traces of Marienbad in I Want to Go Home or of Hiroshima mon amour in Mélo. But that is because, as time passed, Resnais's curiosity focused on different things. 

The early films were about the functioning of memory - which, as Marguerite Duras (writer of the screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour) once noted, is not about the thing remembered, but about "me remembering". This developed, in the films from Providence onwards, into a fascination with the processes of narrative, of the tension between cinema as image and our tendency as filmgoers to turn those images into a story. It is all a question of how that story is 'told' and of how what you see is not necessarily what you get.

Then, finally, came the great period of theatricality starting with Mélo (1986), with key roles (and sometime all roles) played by Sabine Azéma (his wife) and Pierre Arditi. 

It seems fitting that Resnais’s last film should have been another adaptation of a play by Alan Ayckbourn, that supposedly middle-of-the-road, anti-intellectual playwright who will almost certainly, in retrospect, been seen as one of British theatre’s great innovators. Its story of strained relationships, marital jealousy and (that least fashionable of subjects) growing old, is the perfect platform for Resnais. It is a playful, funny and infinitely sad gem of a movie that won the Berlin Critics award and, more significantly, the prestigious Alfred Bauer prize for a “film that opens new perspectives on cinematic art”. Not bad for a 91-year-old.

Note: This article is based on Roddick’s introduction to the Alain Resnais season at National Film Theatre in 2011.

Published March 5, 2014

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Alain Resnais on the set of his last film, Aimer, boire et chanter (Life of Riley) screened at the Berlin Film Festival, 2014

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