One of the most beautiful pearls of observation on the nature of cinema comes from the great Alain Robbe-Grillet. An exceptional novelist and an extraordinary film-maker himself, he had written the film Last Year at Marienbad as a complete outsider, breaking rules screenwriters are supposed to follow, like not specifying camera placements and shot descriptions. On seeing the finished film, Robbe-Grillet noted that Alain Resnais did not divert in any significant form from his screenplay but somehow, the finished film was unmistakably a Resnais film, a great validation of Godard’s dictum in his notes on Contempt that anything filmed was automatically different from anything written.
It also describes Resnais’ style, invisible yet omnipresent. In his long career and lifetime, Alain Resnais has in the words of William Faulkner, “seen the first and the last”. He has worked with artists like Chris Marker, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Jorge Semprun, John Gielgud, Stephen Sondheim, Adolph Comden, Alyn Ayckbourn, Jean Cayrol, Hans Werner Henze, Jacques Sternberg, Henri Laborit. He also edited La Pointe courte, Agnés Varda’s first film. That gallery comprises the middle-of-the-20th Century, a meeting point of classicism, modernism and post-modernism which Resnais keeps blurring all the time, right to his later films.
Alain Resnais can best be understood as a “fellow traveler” to the French New Wave. He was a cinephile, he loved Hitchcock, Louis Feuillade and Jean Renoir yes, but unlike them, he was also far more generous to the pre-war French film-makers like Sacha Guitry, Jean Grémillon and Marcel L’Herbier. He also began making films a full decade before them. Here’s a fun fact, the only film by Alain Resnais to win an Oscar is the 1948 Van Gogh which won Best 2-Reel Documentary at the 1949 Academy Awards.
Before making his first feature, the landmark Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais already secured immortality by directing four of the greatest short films ever made in any language. Les Statues Meurent Aussi brought together Resnais, Chris Marker and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, one of the most piercing films ever made about colonialism, one of the few Western films admired by Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène. Other masterpieces include the mesmerizing and wondrous, Toute le mémoire du monde (1956) on the National Library of France, and his happiest short La Chant du Styrène (1958), a film about the manufacture of polystyrene plastics, shot in delirious color with narration in rhyming couplets supplied by the legendary Raymond Queneau. His most famous short is Night and Fog (1955), a film about the Holocaust that gazes at the horror without flinching or yielding to sentimentalism and despair.
Resnais noted in an interview with Noel Burch that there were no fundamental differences between making shorts and features aside from the fact that short films were harder, required greater preparation and had more restrictions than the features. The films for which Resnais are best known for, and still his most influential work is Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) which is closer to the style of his short films than any feature afterwards. Their constructions are more rigid and tightly knit than the films that followed.
Muriel ou le Temps d’un retour (1963) is perhaps a more important film from the standpoint of the development of Resnais’ career than Marienbad or Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is of course deeply political but the style is more eclectic. The theme of identity, the sense of the environment and the media structuring human consciousness, blurring our memories with our fantasies is achieved even more strongly in this film. This idea is developed in his later films, especially the epochal Stavisky…(1974) which recreates the period glamour and filigree of 30s only to locate death amidst the sunshine. With Stavisky being a tragic fraud who heralds the end of what Charles Boyer’s Baron describes with incredible emotion as “Biarritz-Bonheur”, a sign of a shop that he had only glimpsed once in passing but which to him describes the serenity, real or imagined, of the past.
Ultimately, Resnais’ films represent the most inspiring and optimistic bodies of work in film history because with each new major work, whether it’s Stavisky… or Providence (1977- A rare English-Language film with Dirk Bogarde and John Gielgud) to the impossibility that is Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980), he was constantly changing, discovering and shifting his style and approach, never resting in anything safe and conventional. The third phase of his career begins with Mélo (1986) and continued right until his recent triumphs of Pas sur la bouche (2003), Coeurs (2006), Vous n’avez encore rien vu (2012) and the film that has now become his final film, Aimer, boire et chanter (Life of Riley).
Like Antonioni and Bergman, Alain Resnais reinvented the cinema. Their passing along with Eric Rohmer, Danièle Huillet, Chris Marker, Claude Chabrol, Miklos Jansco and many others represents an apotheosis of cinema as the art of the 20th Century.