If one includes the 8mm films that Alain Resnais, now 91 years old, made as an adolescent, he has one of the longest careers of any director in film history. (The Potuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, at 104, still outranks him.) For the decade or so beginning with Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), Resnais was front-and-center on the cinematic stage. Though generally considered to be part of the French New Wave, he did not share in the Cahiers du Cinéma lineage of Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer. His instincts were more literary (à la collaborations with Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Jorge Semprún), and less inclined to be influenced by Hollywood movies than by surrealists like André Breton. Amid the two dozen shorts he made in the 1940s and 1950s, his subject matter was heavily influenced by French cultural and artistic movements of the recent past, films on Van Gogh, Max Ernst, Gaugin, Picasso. He forged relationships and worked with the filmmakers Agnès Varda and Chris Marker.
Night and Fog brought him to international attention in 1955 with its matter-of-fact approach to the horrors of the Holocaust. The script was written by novelist Jean Cayrol (who later wrote Resnais’ Muriel) and read by Michel Bouquet, the star of several Truffaut films and, most recently, Renoir. Even in MoMA’s somewhat tattered and faded print (which we have thus far been unable to replace), the film remains one of the most powerful statements on 20th-century infamy. It also raises a question that would become central to all of Resnais’s work, and a theme that touches on the significance of all cinema: the role of memory. By juxtaposing color images of Auschwitz in the present with black-and-white footage of the past, Resnais reminds us that there are some things we can’t, and shouldn’t, escape. This reinforces Jean Renoir’s dictum that the only things that matter are the things we remember.
In Hiroshima, mon amour (and later in Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and subsequent work), the director keeps returning to this theme. The bombing of Hiroshima (68 years ago this week) parallels, in some sense, the monstrosities of the concentration camps, and Resnais, in his first effort at a narrative feature, largely deprives his audience of the conventional pleasures of a cinematic love story, opting instead for the explication of his didactic points. Emmanuelle Riva was essentially making her film debut, beginning a distinguished career culminating in last year’s Oscar nomination for Michael Haneke’s Amour. Eiji Okada worked primarily in Japan, most notably starring in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 Woman in the Dunes. Together, Resnais’s purposes, methodology, and style do not facilitate the establishment of an emotional bond between the couple. Andrew Sarris was an admirer of Resnais, but he, like myself, found this distancing, which he called “abstract formalism,”problematic. Sarris wrote that Resnais’ films were “longer on reflection than on action…the director is at his worst when any kind of action is required dramatically. His characters always talk about the past, but Resnais lacks Hollywood’s gumption when it comes to reliving it…. (W)ith this method, there can be no…development…of emotion.”
Later in the 1960s, La Guerre est finie ameliorated the problem, with Resnais permitting his actors (Yves Montand, Ingrid Thulin, Genevieve Bujold) a greater latitude in character development beyond serving as puppets for the director’s manipulation. By the time of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, released in New York just two months ago, Resnais was actually making a film about actors (some playing themselves), including Michel Piccoli, who also appeared in La Guerre est finie nearly a half-century prior. A. O. Scott, in his New York Times review, speaks of Resnais “exploring the slippery line between truth and illusion.” In his early work, the director blazed a trail that was not always endearing to cinema-goers whose tastes were more attuned to feelings than ideas. In the final analysis, Resnais was probably the most provocative and “new” of the New Wave filmmakers.