Alain Resnais was one of the more notable “Left Bank” directors of the French “New Wave” that emerged in the 1950s. He outlived most of his contemporaries and was still producing films in the second decade of the 21st century, having had his first artistic success (the Oscar-winning short film “Van Gogh”) as far back as 1948.
Alain Resnais was born in Vannes, Brittany, on 3rd June 1922, the son of a pharmacist. He was given an 8mm cine camera at the age of ten and began making short films for his own amusement, also being fascinated by the ideas of surrealism.
He wanted to be an actor, but soon joined IDHEC, the Paris-based film school, to learn the basics of film editing. He left without completing a course and started making short films that recorded visits to artists’ studios. This interest developed into biopics, such as the film about Van Gogh mentioned above, and documentaries including “Night and Fog” (1955) which examined the horrors of Nazi concentration camps by incorporating monochrome footage taken when they were in use, intercut with scenes in colour of the camps as they were in the mid 1950s.
Resnais’ first feature film was “Hiroshima mon amour” that appeared in 1959. He differed from other New Wave filmmakers such as Truffaut and Godard by beginning with a detailed and literate script rather than relying on spontaneity and improvisation. Although most of his films were not adaptations of novels, he did employ novelists to write his scripts, and “Hiroshima mon amour” was such an example, the script being by the French novelist Marguerite Dumas. In the film, a French woman and a Japanese man meet and become lovers, but each is haunted by past horrors that create an emotional gulf between them.
The interplay of past, present and future was a consistent theme in Resnais’ work. This is seen very clearly in “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) in which time and space are intermingled in ways that leave the viewer with more questions than answers. Everything one sees is ambiguous and capable of different interpretations. Even the main characters are only known as letters of the alphabet: X, A and M.
The theme continued in “Muriel” (1963), in which the romantically attached characters are forced to deal with past truths and lies, both romantic and political. This was his first film shot entirely in colour, although he would return to using monochrome in later films.
“Providence” (1977) was his first film in English, using English actors including John Gielgud in one of his best film acting roles. A dying novelist is haunted by his memories, dreams, and the characters in the novel he is writing.
One of Resnais’s most remarkable creations was “Smoking / No Smoking” (1993), based on a series of plays by Alan Ayckbourn. They are two separate but complementary films that present twelve possible outcomes, these depending on which of the films ones chooses to see first, there being no “right” or “wrong” choice. There are nine characters in the films, but no more than two are ever seen on the screen at the same time. All the male characters are played by the same actor (Pierre Arditi), likewise all the female characters (Sabine Azema). The narrative branches out and doubles back on itself as alternative consequences of possible actions are presented. Along with the complexity is a great deal of humour.
As mentioned above, Resnais produced films throughout his long life, although sometimes with gaps of three or more years between them. His final film (“Life of Riley”, another film based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn) was premiered only three weeks before he died on 1st March 2014.
Alain Resnais’ films are not easy viewing, as they demand a considerable degree of concentration and a willingness to question one’s own preconceptions. They are tightly structured and formally perfect, and can strike one as cold and intellectual, with philosophy getting in the way of drama. His attempts to portray romance and warm feelings do not always succeed and sometimes lapse into banality. That said, the viewer is always aware of a fierce intelligence at work behind the camera that is challenging him or her to examine their perceptions.
There can be little doubt that Alain Resnais was one the world’s greatest filmmakers.
© John Welford