The Curious Alain Resnais

Like Albert Einstein, Alain Resnais remained throughout his life an extraordinary mix of intelligence and playfulness. But when I first met him in 1962, he struck me as grave, if not quite austere. At that time, he stood at the apex of French cinema, the cerebral master behind Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad. He seemed a pole apart from the antic innovators of the New Wave. Of course, he was a full ten years older than Truffaut, and eight years senior to Chabrol and Godard. He had already won an Academy Award in 1949 (for his short Van Gogh) but didn’t embark on his maiden feature until ten years later. “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.”

He also looked different from the average intellectual at the turn of the 1960s. He held himself so erect that he seemed taller than he really was. His full head of luxuriant hair was always impeccably brushed, and beneath his trademark anoraks he wore semiformal attire. This gave Resnais a detached, somewhat forbidding air, despite his old-world courtesy. On a wintry morning in 1962, he stood in the lobby of the late, lamented Cameo-Poly Cinema in London, following the press screening of Last Year at Marienbad. With novelist and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet at his side, he answered questions with precision and without a hint of condescension or facetiousness. As I have written elsewhere on this site, Resnais spoke of traveling to Germany in search of a hotel for Marienbad, and about the 2.35:1 widescreen format, which he had used for the first time in a feature with Marienbad. He also talked about his workas a documentarist and said he would probably not make any more of these short films: “It’s a problem of finance. There is no assured distribution for them, and in any case they have to be commissioned by various societies.” Plus ça change . . . He added with a smile that Le chant du styrène, a documentary in ’Scope and color, took him almost as long to shoot as Hiroshima mon amour. Then he turned to his pet project, The Adventures of Harry Dickson, based on the quasi-American dime-novel detective popularized by Belgian writer Jean Ray in the 1930s. Resnais was planning to make that one in black and white, he said: “I think one can only use color when a film is down to earth . . . The Adventures of Harry Dickson will be a bit like a fantasy.”

Early in 1963, I met with Resnais again, at Fouquet’s on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, to talk about Muriel ou Le temps d’un retour. Now a nearly forgotten film, shot on location in Boulogne-sur-Mer, it explored the emotions and reactions of Hélène Aughain (played by Delphine Seyrig) during a fortnight’s visit by her former lover. Resnais had switched to Eastmancolor, he said, “because with the different shades one can, as with ceramics, create a fragmentation of colors, or, if you like, a mosaic.” We talked of our mutual love of Welles, and of Antonioni (“I’ve always liked his films, right from the earliest days”), and of the feature projects that had eluded him during the 1950s, among them an adaptation of a novel by Roger Vailland, although he did not say which one. He still appeared dispassionate, but his face broke into broad smiles when he again spoke of Harry Dickson, no longer, apparently, in black and white. “If all goes well,” he said, “I’ll start shooting at Christmastime. I’ve had a script ready for quite a while, and the film will be in color like Muriel. Dickson was a kind of Sherlock Holmes, and in fact we’ll be shooting partly in London.”

Then, in the early seventies, I was staying at the Hotel Manhattan on Eighth Avenue in New York, and who should I find in the breakfast cafeteria but Alain Resnais? Why was he there? I can’t remember, exactly, although it may have had to do with The Year 01, the portmanteau comedy he made with Jacques Doillon and Jean Rouch. He was altogether more relaxed and less intimidating as he chatted away about his love of American comic strips. Harry Dickson still simmered on the back burner . . . For the first time, I felt I glimpsed a puckish sense of humor beneath those rigid features and that penetrating gaze.

Almost three decades later, in 2002, in preparation for my book Revolution!, about the explosion of world cinema in the late fifties and sixties, I made an appointment with Resnais in Paris. Two months shy of his eightieth birthday, he walked in with the confident stride of a much younger man. Gone was the chilly elegance, displaced by funky trainers and a shabby windcheater. When I asked if I could record the conversation, he looked askance, and then relented. “Bob Fosse, one of my idols,” he smiled, “would always bring his own tape recorder for interviews, to double-check everything that was said.” After he had replied to my questions about filmmaking in the fifties and sixties, the subject of DVDs came up. “I don’t approve of voice-over commentaries by directors or scriptwriters,” said Resnais. “I think it takes all the magic away. On the other hand, I like making interviews with extracts of scenes; that I find good.”

Reflecting on his long career, he said, “When people ask me why I make films, I always answer that ‘je tourne pour voir comment ça tourne, I make films to see how films are made. I’m proud of that phrase. I’m curious to see what will become of the script, because there are always surprises, and in the end the film does not resemble what one initially expects, generally speaking.”

My very first book (well, a slim paperback) was devoted to, and entitled, Antonioni-Bergman-Resnais. I admired the work of Antonioni, I adored utterly Bergman’s films, and yet Resnais . . . what appealed to me in him? It must have been his mathematical control over his material, and the way in which he held you at arm’s length for long periods, only to quiver the heart with moments like Emmanuelle Riva’s cry “Oh, I was young once!” in Hiroshima mon amour, or that seemingly endless shot of the gigantic mounds of human hair found in the Auschwitz of Night and Fog. Who could have forecast that the severity, even solemnity, of his early work would give way to a flair for musical comedy and late-flowering whimsy? Or that at the age of ninety-one he would give us yet another feature film, Aimer, boire et chanter, based on a play by his beloved Alan Ayckbourn? A film, moreover, that earned him yet another major festival prize, at the Berlinale, just two weeks before his passing.

This is one in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.

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