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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. 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. I pestered all of my contacts in France to obtain an address or a phone number for him but came up empty. A film professor I know pointed me in the direction of film scholar François Thomas, stating that he was the expert on Alain Resnais.” I called François and explained to him our ideas for supplements for the DVD. We were in search of archival materials from the shoot of Marienbad, but also of contact information for various crew members who could recount their memories of working on the film. François was immediately eager to help and took time from his teaching schedule to provide us with countless treasures, such as behind-the-scenes photographs and annotated script pages. He even went so far as to contact script girl Sylvette Baudrot, assistant director Jean Léon, and production designer Jacques Saulnier, all of whom he knew quite personally from his years of writing on Resnais. Shyly, I asked if he thought the increasingly reclusive filmmaker himself might be willing to participate. François enthusiastically said he would ask him.
A few weeks later, I traveled to France on holiday, and having exchanged countless emails and phone calls with him, made it a point to put a face to the voice of François Thomas. We set up a lunch date in the Latin Quarter at a small, out-of-the-way restaurant. François is a wealth of knowledge about film, especially Resnais’ and Orson Welles’s work, and I sat in this tiny bistro, eating my food absentmindedly as I listened to him reel off information about Resnais’ craft and life, my fascination with the man growing. As we at long last were ordering dessert, a figure in a trench coat walked into the restaurant. I paid little attention as he directed himself to our table, stood over us, and, in a kind, elderly voice uttered, “Alexandre Mabilon?” I turned my head to see a gentleman with a distinguished shock of white hair, dressed in a freshly pressed suit and what I immediately recognized as his trademark red tie, sweetly smiling. “Yes . . . bonjour,” I babbled as I stood up to shake his hand vigorously. “I am Alain,” he said, and joined us at the table. “François has told me so much about you that I thought I would come over to meet you.”
We talked about New York (he was very curious about what it is like to live here), Criterion’s home video business, our criteria for choosing to work on the films we do. He expressed his delight at our having been able to interview Baudrot, Saulnier, and Léon, and I fielded his questions about doing an interview for our DVD and then a few more about living in New York. He had explained to me via François a few weeks earlier that he would not record a commentary. He felt that Last Year at Marienbad would be completely demystified by a commentary track and believed it would do the film a disservice. But he did agree to do an audio interview in French, which François would conduct in the following couple of weeks. An excerpt from that interview is embedded below.
I was very honored and quite humbled that this very private, canonical director had ventured from home in the gray Parisian rain to meet me (and perhaps gauge whether I was worthy of an audio interview). His grace and kindness gave the moment an element of magic. We had several friendly phone conversations after I returned to New York, Resnais punctuating each one by testing out what English he remembered from time spent here in his younger days. “Take care.” “Have good day.” Although we had not been in touch for a couple of years, I am deeply affected by the loss of this man who, with neither pomp nor circumstance, left me starstruck that afternoon.
Alexandre Mabilon is research director at the Criterion Collection.