No filmmaker was more French than Alain Resnais. Film students know who he is, although his name may not be well-known outside the circles in which fans of European cineastes run. He is known for long, long takes, vague whispered voiceovers, and poetic scenes of pure abstraction that border on the maddening. When comedians spoof notions of “European art film,” they’re usually referring directly to Alain Resnais. Resnais is one of the most important voices in the all-important French New Wave, which included a revolutionary new take on cinema and its storytelling tropes. He shared company with people like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.
Resnais died on March 1st at the age of 91 in Paris. He had just completed a feature film. What a champ.
Alain Resnais may not be a household name outside of film majors, but I encourage all young aspiring film-lovers to delve into his filmography. What you will find are numerous French classics waiting to be absorbed. Some of the better cinematic auteurs tend to work with dreams and dream imagery (Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, and David Lynch spring immediately to mind), and Resnais was one of the better creators of bizarre visual poetry that seems to have sprung directly from his dreams. He didn’t tell stories so much as present meditations on certain topics.
I recommend that you start with his masterwork, 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad, a stirring, Proustian look at the power of memory, and how our memories are perhaps the most fallible parts of us – and yet how they still influence us the most directly in our day-to-day lives. Sorry if that sounds a bit abstract, but it was Resnais’ metier. Marienbad told the story of a man and a woman who may or may not have had an affair last year, and how they are now perhaps dreaming or sharing memories of the event.
If you want the Platonic ideal of a European arthouse movie (in both how good they can be, and also how pretentious), you need look no further than Resnais’ 1959 classic Hiroshima Mon Amour, a vague narration featuring a preponderance of free-floating angst over the titular Japanese city. It was about sex, flesh, war, mental illness, and everything in between. Hiroshima Mon Amour is perhaps the Frenchest of all French films, if you take my meaning.
After his “art film” phase of the 1960s, Resnais eventually mellowed into a more theatrical string of relationship dramas and realism exercises. Although his films made after the 1960s are not as well-known (and, I admit, I’m not too familiar with them), there are still some wonderfully striking features to have come been made during this time. His interests turned more toward lovers struggling through their unspoken angst, and he began to resemble a calmed-down Ibsen more than anything. I recommend his 2006 film Private Fears in Public Places; Even into his 80s and 90s, he didn’t seem to have dulled. He only matured.
Alain Resnais is one of the most striking and artistically ambitious filmmakers the world has ever seen, and he will be missed. Rest in peace; However faulty or mutable our memories are, we will try to remember you.