From such starkly modernist puzzlers as Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) to the brightly comic late-career adaptations of plays by Alan Ayckbourn, twenty-one films directed by Alain Resnais will screen at Film Forum in New York from Friday through August 25. Commemorating the filmmaker’s centennial year, Alain Resnais 100 will set the stage for a weeklong run—August 26 through September 1—of a new 4K restoration of La guerre est finie (1966).
Though he often said he was glad for the attention that the French New Wave brought to his own work, Resnais associated himself less with the critics-turned-filmmakers in the offices of Cahiers du cinéma—Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette—and more with such Left Bank directors as Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy, and Georges Franju. As one of the first students at the newly founded film school IDHEC—later renamed La Fémis—Resnais began making short films in the late 1940s, most of them studies of artists such as Van Gogh (1948) and Paul Gaugin (1949). Statues Also Die, codirected with Marker, won the Prix Jean Vigo in 1954, and the following year, Resnais helped Varda edit her first feature, La Pointe Courte.
Producer Anatole Dauman, who would later go on to work with Godard, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Wim Wenders, perceived “a major cinematic intelligence” in Resnais’s work, as Colin MacCabe points out in the essay accompanying our release of Night and Fog (1955). When Dauman invited him to make a documentary to be screened at an exhibition marking the tenth anniversary of the discovery of the Nazis’ concentration camps, Resnais hesitated because he believed that the film should be made by someone who had experienced the Holocaust. So Dauman brought on poet Jean Cayrol, who had worked with the French Resistance and spent two years at Mauthausen-Gusen, to write the screenplay.
Night and Fog juxtaposes gut-wrenching black-and-white newsreel footage with shots in color of “Auschwitz, Majdanek, and the surrounding countrysides in the glorious autumn of 1955,” as MacCabe puts it. Marker honed Cayrol’s first draft, and “there is no doubt that the astonishing rhythm of words and images owes a lot to Marker’s intervention.” In 2012, William Friedkin put Night and Fog on his list of top ten Criterion releases: “It’s only a half hour long, but I’ve not seen a film of any length that matches it in emotional resonance. It transcends the documentary form.”
Dauman’s next project for Resnais was a documentary about the atomic bomb, and Resnais spent months trying to figure out how to formally differentiate such a film from Night and Fog. When he told novelist Marguerite Duras about the fix he was in, the two of them began working on a narrative structure built on the conviction that it was impossible to speak about the incomprehensible horror of Hiroshima.
A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) comes to Japan to make an antiwar film and strikes up a brief but passionate affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) whose family perished in Hiroshima while he was off fighting in the war. What Resnais and Duras created with Hiroshima mon amour, “with the greatest delicacy and emotional and physical precision,” wrote Kent Jones in 2015, “was an anxious aesthetic object, as unsettled over its own identity and sense of direction as the world was unsettled over how to go about its business after the cataclysmic horror of World War II.”
Resnais next worked with another literary giant associated with the nouveau roman, Alain Robbe-Grillet, on Last Year at Marienbad. A woman, A (Delphine Seyrig, exquisitely dressed by Coco Chanel), is approached by a man, X (Giorgio Albertazzi), who says he’s keeping an appointment they set a year ago when they were having an affair. She says she remembers nothing of the sort. Fragments of their conversation are repeated in various locations inside and out on the grounds of what seems to be a baroque palace converted into a hotel or resort for wealthy clients.
“By numerous subtle and not-so-subtle details,” wrote Mark Polizzotti in 2009, “the visuals seem to favor the heroine’s point of view, almost defending her against Robbe-Grillet’s identification with X, giving her an autonomy and independence of mind out of register with the author’s objectifying gaze. Robbe-Grillet called Marienbad ‘the story of a persuasion,’ in which the hero offers the woman ‘a past, a future, and freedom.’ In Resnais’s realization of it, things are not nearly so simple.”
For his third feature, Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), Resnais reteamed with Night and Fog writer Cayrol and with Seyrig, who plays a widow running an antique shop and living with her son, whose memories of what he did during his military service in Algeria have left him with severe psychological scars. Writing about “Resnais’s greatest film” in 2016, James Quandt noted that “what Resnais himself called the ‘dreamlike’ aura of Marienbad is here replaced by a new tactility, a much vaunted materialism that can be ascribed to both his intensified political resolve, which had caused conflicts with Robbe-Grillet, and to the documentarist tendencies of Muriel’s scenarist, Jean Cayrol.”
That political resolve was expressed even more overtly in La guerre est finie, starring Yves Montand as Diego, a Spanish communist traveling along an underground anti-Franco network nearly thirty years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. The screenplay by Jorge Semprún, who had himself worked as an organizer for the exiled Communist Party and would later write Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), was nominated for an Oscar.
“There is a new note here, of a man oppressed more by hard reality than by the elusive promptings of memory,” wrote Tom Milne in a 1966 issue of Sight and Sound. “Where Muriel was a film of muted tones designed to convey the subtle interaction of past and present, with its cut corners and overlapping dialogue taking a route almost as circular as memory itself, La guerre est finie drives straight forward, altogether harder and more sharply cut, and with Diego’s premonitory flashes—a train missed, an arrest, a death—lending an urgent edge of fear.”
In Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), written by science-fiction and fantasy novelist Jacques Sternberg, Claude Rich plays a man who attempts suicide, fails, and is approached by researchers asking him to take part in an experiment in which he would go back in time for one minute. But when they send him back, he can’t return. Instead, he experiences a series of disjointed fragments of his dark past.
Je t’aime was selected to screen in Cannes, but, of course, the 1968 edition was a bust. As students and police clashed in Paris, Resnais joined other directors, including Claude Lelouch, Carlos Saura, and Miloš Forman, who withdrew their films from the lineup. Je t’aime had already opened in French theaters, but it fared poorly with critics and audiences alike. “People weren’t then ready for this quiet mixture of science fiction with a love story as subtle as anything in Rohmer and Rivette,” wrote Raymond Durgnat years later in his program notes for the Pacific Film Archive. “But with Marker’s La Jetée and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, it constitutes a holy trinity of meditations on the horrors of eternal life.”
Stavisky (1974), written by Semprún and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as Alexandre Stavisky, a financier and embezzler whose mysterious death in 1934 led to a raging scandal and riots in the streets of Paris, is “a deceptively ruminative entertainment with a fizzy melancholy, and awash in sensory pleasures,” wrote Robert Abele in the Los Angeles Times in 2018. “Those include, but aren’t limited to, longtime Resnais cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s feathery whites and fulsome reds, and a rare film score by stage musical god Stephen Sondheim, evoking the era—and any given scene’s emotions—with a pulsating melodic grace.” Belmondo is “great fun, simultaneously charismatic and boyishly enthused, but never far from a stare that suggests an abyss is at hand.”
Providence (1977) features an outstanding cast led by John Gielgud, who plays a writer about to turn seventy-eight and thoroughly convinced that he’s at death’s door. Medicated and not infrequently inebriated, he maps and then remaps passages of his next novel, in which a lawyer (Dirk Bogarde) carries on with his mistress (Elaine Stritch) while his wife (Ellen Burstyn) tries to seduce an unresponsive former soldier (the late David Warner). “Although David Mercer’s witty, aphoristic script can be British to a fault,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader in 2000, “the film’s rich mental landscape is a good deal more universal, with everything from H. P. Lovecraft’s werewolves to a painted seaside backdrop providing the essential textures. Like all of Resnais’s best work, this is shot through with purposeful and lyrical enigmas.”
In 1985, Rosenbaum championed the “first genuine hit in Alain Resnais’s career,” My American Uncle (1980). Resnais told Tom Buckley in the New York Times that when he met behavioral scientist Henri Laborit, he “told me that my Last Year at Marienbad had proved to him that it was possible to represent visually the functioning of memory . . . Films or plays usually arise from a desire to develop an idea or theory through characters or through a story. I said to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do just the opposite?’”
Three separate but related stories play out in My American Uncle, and Laborit, wearing a white lab coat and addressing the viewer, comments on the characters’ actions. His “quasi-determinist theories” are “never very interesting or persuasive,” found Rosenbaum. “What matters here is the fluidity of Resnais and screenwriter Jean Gruault’s masterful storytelling; they manage to convey a dense, multilayered narrative with remarkable ease and simplicity.”
With Life Is a Bed of Roses (1983) and Love Unto Death (1984), two more collaborations with Gruault, “Resnais’s approach took a decisive turn,” wrote Dave Kehr in the New York Times in 2007. In Roses, “he assembled a wildly free-form narrative, which he conceived through the old Surrealist game of automatic writing.” Again, there are three stories, all of them set in the Forest of Ardennes but in different time periods—the Middle Ages, the eve of the First World War, and the 1980s. “Memory is not the complicating factor here,” wrote Kehr, “so much as it is Mr. Resnais’s personal conception of the collective unconscious, a vast, subterranean territory filled with bit of high culture and low, of received ideas and revolutionary impulses, of spiritual yearnings and lustful desires.”
Having so effectively impacted the language of cinema with his early work, Resnais was rediscovering his love for theater, and an informal company of performers was taking shape: Sabine Azéma, whom Resnais married in 1998, as well as André Dussollier, Fanny Ardant, and Pierre Arditi. “The characters suddenly seemed cartoonish,” wrote Kehr, “and the actors’ delivery seemed more elocutionary than interpretive.” Resnais put “the artificialities of the theater” to use, “as he later said, to create ‘a movement back and forth between identification and distance, between sympathy and antipathy’ for his characters.”
Set in Paris in the 1920s, Mélo (1986) is the story of the love shared by a violinist and a young married flapper. Resnais is “clearly moved by the characters and their ‘lost poetry and youth,’” wrote Fernando F. Croce in Slant in 2008, “and the rapt gaze of his camera extracts true feeling from their tragicomic convolutions. At first coming off as a step backward for Resnais, the theatricality of Mélo (complete with dissolves of red curtains announcing the end of an act) becomes a different sort of experimentalism, attuned more to the emotional wholeness of its protagonists than to the structural splintering of the narrative.”
Besides theater, comics were another passion. Resnais famously maintained the largest private collection of comic books in France. In 1962, he became the cofounding vice president of the International Society for Comic Books. In 2018, Stan Lee, the creative force behind Marvel Comics, told Daniel Raim about the monster movie he and Resnais dreamed up, wrote, and then let go. Talking to Frederic Tuten in a 1984 issue of Artforum, Resnais said that he “would have loved to make” a Conan the Barbarian movie, a Mandrake the Magician movie, or “at least one kind of crazy adventure film.”
I Want to Go Home (1989), the story of an American cartoonist in France written by Jules Feiffer, may be as close as Resnais ever got to realizing that dream. Croce found that it “has a splenetic oddball quality that’s at odds with the evanescent tendencies of its maker’s later films . . . A truly strange brew perpetually inviting disaster yet somehow always eluding the abyss, I Want to Go Home is an inexplicable item but an affable one, the work of a buoyantly tranquil artist amusing himself with a doodle.”
Film Forum will screen two of the three Alan Ayckbourn adaptations, Private Fears in Public Places (2006) and Resnais’s final film, Life of Riley (2014). Places, a series of fifty short scenes, is “accessible, pleasant, dreamy, a touch goofy and melancholic,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Its modernist gestures are little more than stylistic tics, but there’s an image of snow falling on two clasped hands that is almost rapturous.” In Riley, three couples rattled by the news of the impending death of a mutual friend, George Riley, decide to invite him to join their theatrical troupe. “Any attempt to untangle the inner workings of Life of Riley is a pleasure in itself,” writes Boris Nelepo in the Notebook, “yet what makes the movie a bona fide masterpiece is precisely its airiness, simplicity, vitality.”
Wild Grass (2009), an adaptation of a 1996 novel by the prolific minimalist writer and jazz saxophonist Christian Gailly, “zig-zags zanily from one genre to the next,” wrote Scott Foundas in the Village Voice when the film screened at the New York Film Festival. “Sometimes, it’s a screwball comedy (complete with a couple of Keystone-worthy cops played by Mathieu Amalric and Michel Vuillermoz); sometimes, it’s a thriller; sometimes, it’s an old-fashioned movie romance.”
Interviewing Resnais for the Guardian the following year, Gilbert Adair asked him about his affinity for pop culture. “You’ve got to remember,” said Resnais, “that the cinema of the 1950s specialized all but exclusively in escapist entertainment. And we—I mean my generation of French filmmakers—sought precisely to escape from that escapism. We were young and ambitious and we wanted to address the big issues from which the cinema preferred to avert its eyes—in my own case, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, the Algerian war. Now, in France, 230 films are released every year, and I would say that fully sixty percent consciously set out to expose some social or political abuse. It’s become almost the norm. Well, I dislike norms. Blissfully liberated from the pressure to compete, I’m free to play with what Orson Welles called the biggest electric train set in the world.”
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