French director Alain Resnais, who died on Saturday at the age of 91, was cinema’s definitive artist of post-War trauma, and exemplary filmmaker struggling to represent events that seem unthinkable.
Resnais's 32-minute 1955 documentary, Night and Fog, remains a milestone in Holocaust documentary made a decade after the concentration camps were liberated, took a counter-intuitive contemplate approach to the camp horrors, contrasting colour tracking shots of the desolate grounds of the concentration camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, accompanied by the narration of novelist-poet and camp survivor, Jean Cayrol, along with archival black and white film and photos of the camps. Francois Truffault, then a young critic, declared it the greatest film ever made.
Resnais addressed another of the Second World War's great traumas in his first feature drama, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) with a screenplay written by novelist, Marguerite Duras, as an extended dialogue between a French actress making a film about Hiroshima, known as She (Emmanuelle Riva, later one of the stars of Michael Haneke’s Amour) and a Japanese architect known only as He (Eiji Okada). The two are separating after a brief affair, as a discussion of inside and outside the experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The movie’s flashbacks concern her previous affair with a German soldier.
The circularity, repetitions, and ellipsis that defined Renais’ style had a direct relationship to the forbidding subject matter:
“I came to see,” he said in a later interview, “that all you could do was suggest the horror. That if you tried to show something very real onscreen, the horror disappeared. So I had to use every means possible to set the viewer’s imagination in motion.”
That same eliptical approach also characterized his second and most notoriously divisive, feature, Last Year at Marienbad (1961) defined the idea of “art movie”. Once again, there’s the emotional struggle between a man and a woman (Giorgio Albertazzi and Delphine Seyrig), who encounter each other in a grand cathedral-like hotel, and who may or may not have had a previous relationship. There are hints of violence and murder, and indeed, may be ghosts, or possibly another incarnation of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The film is either revered (a “masterpiece of masterpieces,” Jonathan Rosenbaum) or derided for its obscurity. “The snow job at the ice palace,” sneered Pauline Kael, who lumped Resnais as one of the fashionable “sick-soul-of-Europe” directors of the era.
In either case, Marienbad’s influence has been widespread. The movie has inspired a fashion shoots by Karl Lagerfeld, to a video for the rock group, Blur, and a template for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. English director, Christopher Nolan, said he hadn’t seen Resnais’s film until he had finished his own dream movie, Inception, and then realized “I’m ripping off the movies that ripped off “Last Year at Marienbad without having seen the original.”
Resnais’s third film, Muriel, or The Time of a Return (1963), is about another remembered love affair, another unspeakable subject: torture. Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) a widow who runs an antique business, is visited by an old lover, Alphonse. Her stepson, Bernard, is traumatized by the memory of a girl named Muriel, who he and other French soldiers tortured in Algeria.
As critic Naomi Green has written, Renais’s films are “peopled by men and women for whom time had stopped –numbed surivivors chained to the past by remembered trauma.”
But that account itself tends to freeze Resnais’s career itself as if it were frozen in time, which is inaccurate. His work has continued to win prizes at international festivals and remains popular in France. Most of Resnais’s work in the past forty years has been far less sombre than his historical reputation. In recent years, he has relied more on an ensemble of actors and focused on theatrical adaptations rather than the big historical subjects.
In 2012, his film, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a free-wheeling adaptation of Jean Anouih’s 1941 play, Eurydice, was in competition at the Cannes film festival and won high critical praise. Just three weeks ago, his adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Life of Riley (the third Ayckbourn play Resnais adapted) was in competititon at the Berlin film festival, where it won the Alfred Bauer Prize for Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, for a feature film for innovation in theatre.
As much as Resnais may have been a standard bearer for the “sick soul of Europe” movies of the late fifties and early 1960s, he has also been a heroic cinematic figure in the power of the imagination in the face of loss. It’s a mark of Resnais’s dedication in the power of imagination that he was still winning prizes for innovation in his nineties.