At the end of Life of Riley, a young woman places the image of a happy skull on the coffin of a man around whom all the action, all the talk has revolved throughout the film. That man, George, is never seen; all we know of him is what others have been saying about him. That image, that smile, that memento mori, is a final playful gesture from Alain Resnais, who died last night at the age of 91.
When the Arsenal here in Berlin ran a retrospective back in 2012, the programmers noted that Resnais had originally intended to become an actor:
However, he studied editing at Paris’ film school, the IDHEC, and the notion of montage remains essential to his work today. He started making miniature portraits of artists in 1946 and moved on to short documentaries in the 1950s. These were often commissions and were largely essayistic in form, treating a variety of subjects. At the time, he was especially interested in the relationship between film, art, language, history and society. Although Resnais was a contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, he felt more affinities with the loose “Rive Gauche” group (mainly Marker and Varda). In contrast to those of his colleagues who came from the Cahiers du Cinéma, Resnais has till today never written his own screenplay. To begin with, he worked from original screenplays written by novelists such as Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jorge Semprun; he later adapted plays by Alan Ayckbourn or Jean Anouilh. His films Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and L’annee derniere a Marienbad (1961) made a significant to the modern age of cinema. His trademark became the breaking of traditional linear narrative structures in favor of complex compositions with different time and space relations. Whereas until the end of the 1960s, his works examined war and the complicated relationship between past and present, between remembering and forgetting, in the 1980s, Resnais started examining the artificiality of theater’s impact on cinema. He has since developed a very personal form of anti-realism, and as his interest in the “trivial” has grown he has been inspired by material from boulevard theater, popular literature and chanson. The gap between high and pop culture is one he continues to bridge today in a playful manner.
There’s that word “playful” again. But let’s not get carried away. In 2003, Kent Jones noted that “Hiroshima mon amour’s status as a milestone in film history is both a blessing and a curse. It can be hard for new audiences to find their way to the actual movie, buried as it is beneath its own daunting reputation, monumental subject matter, and high cultural pedigree. Unlike Breathless, with its jump cuts and light, spontaneous feel, Hiroshima is deliberate, highly constructed, decidedly grave, and emotionally devastating. Where Godard is loose-limbed, Resnais has a spine of modernist steel. Where the Godard film feels like a free-jazz improvisation, the Resnais feels like a piece of atonal music with the weight of history on its shoulders—Ornette Coleman vs. Anton Webern.”
When Last Year at Marienbad turned 50 in 2011, I gathered links to essays measuring its impact in the Notebook. In “The Game,” another piece for the Notebook by Miriam Bale, she notes that the film “is often relegated to a peak of the separate-but-not-quite-equal Left Bank branch of the French New Wave, but as revealed in a longform interview with director Alain Resnais by André Labarthe and Jacques Rivette (Cahiers du cinéma, September 1961) Marienbad was major influence on French New Wave filmmaking strategies, particularly on Rivette.”
Just the other day, Jonathan Rosenbaum posted his 1980 interview with Resnais. Introducing the conversation, he wrote of Mon Oncle d’Amérique: “Resnais exhibits here his usual flair for composing beautiful shots that are at once richly suggestive (especially in color) and hauntingly symmetrical—like those centering on a wild boar, a sewing machine, or Russian dolls—and then arranging them in mysterious mosaic-like patterns in the editing. But these opulent visual pearls are basically strewn about for kicks, not provocation; and all the minor puzzles that Resnais sets up are neatly solved along the way.”
In 2007, Rosenbaum reflected on “Three Key Moments from Three Alain Resnais Films,” the three being Marienbad, Stavisky (1974) and Mélo (1986), about which he poses the question that would come up over and again in writing about Resnais’s late work: “Is Resnais’s adaptation of Henry Bernstein’s 1929 melodrama filmed theater? Yes and no. A personal filmmaker who loves to hide behind his writers, Resnais always has secondary agendas up his sleeve.”
“That Alain Resnais would endow his follow-up to his neurologically scrambled masterpiece Les herbes folles (2009) with the title You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet seems like a goad to premature eulogists,” wrote Blake Williams for Cinema Scope in 2012. “Mortality, however, is very much on the film’s mind…. As Jonathan Rosenbaum once posited, Resnais’s films bear a likeness to sculpture in their ‘shapeliness’ and ‘powerful multiplicity of meanings’; in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, by contrast, Resnais reshapes Anouilh’s linear narrative into an epically Cubist structure, no additional vantage points necessary.”
Eric Rohmer: “Resnais is a cubist. I mean that he is the first modern filmmaker of the sound film.”
More for the moment: David Phelps in the Notebook on You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet. “Cinema After Alain Resnais” from Internationale Situationniste #3 (December 1959). And acquarello‘s collection of reviews.
Updates: The remarkable Catherine Grant has begun a tribute that will evolve over the coming days and weeks.
Via Ekkehard Knörer at Cargo:
At Senses of Cinema: Robert Farmer‘s history of the Left Bank Group (Resnais, Marker, Varda), Joanna Di Mattia on Hiroshima mon amour, Darragh O’Donaghue on Last Year at Marienbad and Gavin Keeney: “The coincidence of La jetée (1963) and L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961) is no coincidence.”
Writing for the New York Times, Dave Kehr notes that one “expression of his appreciation for ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture was his interest in cartoons. His 1989 movie, I Want to Go Home, was a comedy collaboration with Jules Feiffer, with whom he wrote the screenplay. He told a French interviewer that he wanted his work to have the effect of ‘désolation allègre‘—’cheerful desolation.’ … At the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, where Mr. Resnais received a lifetime achievement award, he said: ‘I’ve read articles calling me a filmmaker of memory. I’ve always refused that label by saying, “No, I want to make films that describe the imaginary.”‘”
“I have loved Resnais’s films since, I think, I was old enough to know they existed,” writes Glenn Kenny. “As a young movie junkie eager to do nothing but immerse myself in exotic screen environments—any world that I’m welcome to, as the saying goes—the very IDEA of Last Year at Marienbad intoxicated and terrified me. The reality of the film still does the same thing to this day.” Glenn then links to several related pieces he’s written over the years and reposts an interview he conducted with Resnais in 2007.
For the Dissolve‘s Noel Murray, Resnais “was a well-rounded aesthete, who expressed his love of music and literature and culture through his films, which ranged from the science-fiction experiment Je t’aime, je t’aime to the meta-musical Same Old Song, in which the characters spontaneously lip-synch to old French pop songs. Defying his early reputation as a ‘difficult’ filmmaker, Resnais brought a real sense of joy and ache to his work over the decades, without ever abandoning his fascination with form. It’s just that in films like 1977’s Providence (about a writer’s internal process as he tries to squeeze his miserable life into his latest book) and the 1993 diptych Smoking/No Smoking (which imagines how the stories of a group of characters could be affected by a just a few tweaks), Resnais fit recognizable human beings into his odd little boxes.”
Via the Kevin Jagernauth at the Playlist, a 1961 interview:
Peter Labuza posted a passage from a 1959 interview with Rivette. Here’s how it begins: “It’s right to talk about the science-fiction element in Resnais. But it’s also wrong, because he is the only film-maker to convey the feeling that he has already reached a world which in other people’s eyes is still futuristic. In other words he is the only one to know that we are already in the age where science-fiction has become reality.”
“Even overtly political works, Night and Fog, The War Is Over and his section of Far from Vietnam have a distance from the wars that gave rise to them,” writes Brian Baxter for the Guardian. “But whatever social or film history makes of Resnais in the coming decades, he ensured a permanent niche in that history through two disparate works, at least. On its release his 30-minute Night and Fog (1955) provoked the then critic François Truffaut to call it the greatest film ever made…. The film was awarded the Prix Jean Vigo in 1956 and remains a masterpiece, possibly his greatest work. A contrasted claim to screen immortality rests in his second feature film, Last Year in Marienbad (1961), which had the rare distinction of causing endless debate and controversy not on grounds of content, or lack of it, but for stylistic reasons and the ambiguities of character and narrative.”
David Ehrenstein notes that “in the late 60s he and then-girlfriend Florence Malraux were spending a great deal of time in New York. I recall running into him on several occasions, the most memorable being the first public screening of Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement . ‘Well let’s go,’ Ms. Malraux said when the end credits came. ‘No,’ said M. Resnais ‘We are going to stay here and see it again!'”
“[F]ollowing the lead of the critic Glenn Kenny, I was only half-joking when I introduced a screening of Last Year at Marienbad in a class just weeks ago by saying that it was ‘the arthouse version of [Harold Ramis‘s] Groundhog Day,'” writes Michael Smith. “Both movies explore the premise of having a character relive the same time frame over and over again while trying to convince others they are not crazy in the bargain. But the affinities between the whip-smart creators of these movies go deeper than that. Resnais was a critical darling frequently characterized as ‘cerebral’ and ‘intellectual’ but he had a poppier side that was often sadly overlooked. (He was fond of comic books and Stephen Sondheim, and his love of The X-Files directly resulted in a fruitful collaboration with Mark Snow, the composer of that show’s theme song.) Ramis received a kind of grudging critical respect for being a successful-but-vulgar showman and yet his films also explored serious philosophical issues that went unremarked upon at the time of their initial release.”
Resnais’s “films are at once esoteric and intimate, like a secret you’ve been told in confidence,” writes Guy Lodge at In Contention. More from the Telegraph.
Updates, 3/3: Via Chris Marker: Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory, rare footage of Resnais and Marker receiving the Prix Jean Vigo in 1954:
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “Resnais started making films after the war, a time when memory itself was, in France, an equivocal virtue—and he made memory his subject. And, from his quest to realize memory in cinema, he made one of the most original figures of style in the history of the medium…. The figure of style that is Resnais’s own is the tracking shot, the mysterious straight-line thrust, neither riding nor strolling, at a pace of heightened urgency, into or through a setting. It sounds trivial—the moving camera was already used by D. W. Griffith in the teens, and was brought to a high art by F. W. Murnau in the twenties, Jean Renoir and Kenji Mizoguchi in the thirties, and Max Ophuls in the forties—yet Resnais made the camera look as if its movement had only just been invented, by him, for a specific purpose: to embody the inhumanly natural flow of time.”
Filmmaker has posted comments from Anatole Dauman, the producer who worked with Resnais on Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Also: Notes on the occasion of a 2000 retrospective from Peter Bowen, plus Chris Münch on Hiroshima mon amour, Keith Gordon on Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Radley Metzger on Je t’aime, je t’aime.
A.A. Dowd at the AV Club: “‘The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback,’ Resnais told journalist Joan Dupont a few years ago. Perhaps more than any other director, he was fascinated by the interplay between now and then, two states of existence his films would frequently collapse.”
“Finally seeing Marienbad in the late 1980s was a curious thing,” writes John Coulthart, “like meeting somebody face-to-face after years of remote correspondence; the same readjustments needed to be made to accept that this was the reality of the work of art, not Robbe-Grillet’s embryonic version, or my own baroque imaginings.” And “where Providence and other Resnais films have inevitably dated, Last Year in Marienbad remains out of time, a 20th-century dream held captive in 18th-century architecture where the airless rococo chambers might easily share a labyrinth with the hotel waiting-room at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“Nothing that followed in Resnais’s career was truly as radical as Marienbad, but it set the tone for a cinema intellectualism that was sneered at as much as it was embraced,” writes David Thompson for Sight & Sound. “Resnais was of a generation who effectively abandoned dreams of revolution before May 1968, and from that year on his films became more playful and idiosyncratic. Above all he liked to work with forms and conventions, and famously said that ‘if there is no form, you cannot create emotion in the spectator.'”
David Jenkins at Little White Lies: “Perhaps it’s not ideal, but I discovered that to appreciate Resnais—that is to truly appreciate everything that makes his films singular and special—you must be savvy to all the rules and regulations of conventional cinema. Pleasure is then garnered from seeing which rules he breaks, how he breaks them, and how often. His capacity for nutty formal pyrotechnics and warped structural configuration seemingly knew no earthly bounds, and even with his late masterpiece, 2009’s Wild Grass, he existed till the last as a cinematic affront to banality. It’s a strange thing now, but he made films which you had to gravitate towards, the onus was on you to understand them, not the other way around.”
Fernando F. Croce‘s movie of the day today is Night and Fog: “The greatest of Resnais’ early shorts, a haunted litany about unspeakable events barely a decade old, the madness of history and the sin of forgetfulness.”
“Like Albert Einstein, Alain Resnais remained throughout his life an extraordinary mix of intelligence and playfulness,” writes Peter Cowie for Criterion’s Current. “But when I first met him in 1962, he struck me as grave, if not quite austere…. ‘Although I was not fully part of the New Wave because of my age,’ Resnais told me in 2002, ‘there was some mutual sympathy and respect between myself and Rivette, Bazin, Demy, and Truffaut. I did not know Rohmer so much, although I liked what he wrote. Chabrol too, as I shared his passion for Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. So I felt friendly with that team.'”
Updates, 3/29: John Coulthart introduces the bit of viewing below: “Toute la mémoire du monde, a study of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, was made in 1956, and includes a certain Chris Marker (listed as ‘Chris and Magic Marker’) among its credits. The combination of drifting camera movements, and an interest in architectural space seems like such a precursor of Last Year at Marienbad that the film has found a new life as an extra on Marienbad DVDs.”
Hiroshima mon amour “ambushed me at a time when for me film was still something innocuous, an entertainment, little more than an evening’s diversion with friends, or watched at home on a dozy Sunday,” writes Locarno artistic director Carlo Chatrian. “Emphasizing the act of viewing, Hiroshima mon amour radically changed the coordinates of that model. A little like what happens upon realizing that a bicycle, apart from being simply an object propped up in the courtyard, is something that can take you far away. And there’s a touch of anxiety underneath the excitement at the thought of being able to travel through the city’s streets. After Hiroshima, it was Nuit et brouillard that reinforced the relationship between the intangibility of the film images and the weight of History. That little, enormous and monolithic film, seen in a video screening room at university, reminded me that images always contain an imprint of the stigmata of what has been. Images are never innocent. They are the result of a choice. This is why, before shaping them into a story, it is necessary to read them and respect the material from which they are made. Nuit et brouillard seen again with Jacques Rivette’s famous text on abjection in mind, has become an axiomatic text from which what has been called cinematic ontology took form.”
“Life of Riley won the Alfred Bauer Prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival for opening ‘new perspectives on cinematic art,'” notes Aaron Cutler in the Voice. “It was an appropriate award for the work of a 91-year-old filmmaker who died on Saturday after trying to develop new screenplays from his hospital bed, and who had been modestly seeking innovations in film form, with remarkably coherent and consistent results, for more than 60 years. Resnais worked at making films that would reflect the processes of human thought. He directed the creators involved in their immediately prominent elements—among these, highly self-aware acting, camerawork, editing, music, writing, and set design—to suggest evolving psychologies that he trusted viewers to follow.”
“A few years ago, as I was collaborating on the Criterion release of Last Year at Marienbad, I had the chance to meet Alain Resnais,” writes Alexandre Mabilon. “We had released Hiroshima mon amour and Night and Fog a few years earlier, and the director had not been available to participate in either edition. As we had learned early on that Resnais didn’t grant video interviews, we decided to ask him to do a commentary or an audio interview for Marienbad.” He then tells the story of how he got it:
Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader: “Few movies convey our fear of the unknown as powerfully as Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Love Unto Death (1984), or Resnais’s theatrical adaptations Mélo (1986), Private Fears in Public Places (2006), and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012), in which the deliberately phony-looking sets seem like flimsy refuges from an encroaching void (as I wrote last summer, when you watch these movies in a theater, it feels like you’re fleeing that void along with the characters). But in surrealist tradition, Resnais’s films approach the unknown through highly familiar forms. Often mistaken for a highbrow for collaborating with such writers as Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Jorge Semprun, Resnais was in fact a big fan of musical theater, H.P. Lovecraft (a source of inspiration for his 1977 Providence), The X-Files, and above all comic books…. Resnais loved these forms of popular art much like the surrealists loved mainstream movies—as points of entry into the collective subconscious. Now that he’s gone, it feels as though one of the largest of these portals has been forever shut.”
Writing for Bright Lights, Lesley Chow notes that “in the last twenty years of his life, Resnais became the most forward-looking of filmmakers, creating a new definition of drama with his intense emotional scenes played against unreal settings. From our critics’ jury [at this year’s Berlinale], Resnais received the FIPRESCI Prize for his final work, Aimer, Boire et Chanter (Life of Riley). As our jury head, Positif editor Michel Ciment, wrote, the film is ‘at once rigorous in its stylistic devices… and wildly free,’ testifying to ‘an artist who loves to play games, to give free rein to his imagination and, above all, to celebrate life, even in the presence of death.’ For Resnais, modernism was never dead: he would trot out the same old songs and tired games and give them an unexpected twist, so as to delay exhaustion and bring pleasure instead.”
Resnais and Marker’s Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953)
Update, 4/3: Resnais “was a true man of the cinema,” writes Adrian Martin in De Filmkrant. “He said it over and over, in his amiable way: he likes cinema to be cinematographic, to give a thrill that only it can give—both imaginary and material at the same time. But he was no purist, he knew the thrill of the cinematic could be milked from anything: an actor’s gesture, an edit, a set, a change of coloured lights. From anything, and from the canny combination, in time and space, of all these anythings.”
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