French film director Alain Resnais (born 1922) was one of the most noted innovators in the history of twentieth-century film. His many film credits include Night and Fog, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and Marienbad.
After paying his dues as an actor, editor, screen-writer, and assistant director in the 1940s and 1950s, Resnais emerged as a leading member of the French cinema's New Wave. His themes, which frequently involve memory, history, and time, revolutionized film conventions. Resnais's films typically involve characters who, though their outward appearances seem conventional, inevitably find themselves caught up in existential dilemmas. In the course of his career Resnais has collaborated with many top writers, among them Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Gruault, Jorge Semprun, and Jean Cayrol. As one of the foremost proponents European art cinema, Resnais has profoundly influenced other film makers, if only by forcing them to examine their own assumptions about their craft.
Resnais was born on June 3, 1922, in Vannes, Morbihan, Bretagne, France. Like his hero, French novelist Marcel Proust, the young Resnais was educated at home because he suffered from asthma. By most accounts Resnais became interested in film-making at an early age, and his first work, titled "Fantomas," was filmed with the help of friends when he was 14. The 8mm film, which runs only three minutes, employed several cinematic "tricks" designed to vary the appearance of the characters.
Despite this early effort, Resnais had no youthful aspirations toward a career in cinema. As he told Joan Dupont in Interview: "I never had any special appetite for filmmaking, but you have to make a living and it is miraculous to earn a living working in film. My father and grandfather were pharmacists, but I couldn't become one because you needed the baccalaureate [high school diploma] and because my health was bad, I failed." In any case, after finishing his preparatory studies, Resnais entered the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris, where he became thoroughly immersed in the world of film.
Resnais's early films, which were shot in black and white on 16mm film, are short documentaries dealing with art and artists. In 1948, for example, he made the film Van Gogh, which was followed by another filmed in 1950 and titled Gauguin. During the 1950s he also shot and edited scenes for other directors. Resnais's own early films fore-shadow certain themes that the filmmaker would take up in the 1960s: including time, memory, post-capitalist imperialism, and the role of the artist. He remained concerned with the role of the artist in society throughout much of his career.
In 1955 Resnais made the 30-minute documentarystyle film Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard), which presents a riveting look at German concentration camps. The film juxtaposes grainy black-and-white historical footage of the Nazi-run concentration camps during operation with color footage of the same camps as they appeared a decade after they were abandoned. Archival footage from Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and Einstanz Grüppe was used by Resnais to create this collage of atrocities, and the film's script was written by poet and former prison-camp inmate Jean Cayrol. In Night and Fog, Resnais explores the ambiguities between cinematic and real time, as well as between memory and conscience. The film expresses the message that although individual people would like to evade responsibility, ultimately it is collective humanity that must bear the responsibility for the Nazi horrors.
Discussing Night and Fog, Resnais told Dupont that with "little money and few documents, we had nothing. So I used formal techniques to make the film more perceptive emotionally. For the first time, I used a mix of black and white with color In the editing room, I asked myself, 'What are you doing manipulating corpses this way?' It was repugnant, but it was the only way to communicate."
American film director Errol Morris commented in Filmmaker that many people's beliefs about the Holocaust were influenced by Night and Fog. According to Morris, although the film was successful in bringing the Nazi atrocities into popular consciousness, it also had the effect of muddling history. For example, Morris noted that there is no mention in the film of the role French gendarmes played in the Holocaust. According to James Monaco, writing in his Alain Resnais, in the original film a French gendarme is clearly visible in one of the photographs. Because this version was unacceptable to French censors, the gendarme's uniform was edited out of the film before it was screened publically.
Resnais followed Night and Fog with Le Chant du styrene (1958), in which he attempts to capture a plastics factory in cinematographic poetry. The film traces the manufacture of polystyrene from the finished product back through the industrial pipelines to the raw starting materials. Monaco dubbed Le Chant due styrene the most remarkable "industrial" film ever made.
In 1959 Renais filmed the full-length 35mm black-and-white feature Hiroshima, Mon Amour, based on a script by novelist Marguerite Duras. The film, which explores the relationship between history and memory, was awarded the Cannes Film Festival's International Critics Prize. In the film a French actress on assignment in Japan and a Japanese architect have a brief, adulterous affair. The actress is haunted by her past in occupied France, where she had an affair with a German soldier, and the architect is haunted by his family's sufferings during the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. In Hiroshima, Mon Amour Resnais uses the medium of film to break down the linearity that encapsulates time and memory and creates a dream state. The clean, modern lines of the hotel where the affair takes place are contrasted in the film with the natural curves of the lovers, the rivers that wind through the town, and the memories in the protagonists' pasts.
In discussing Hiroshima, Mon Amour with Dupont, Resnais explained that he and Duras "had this idea of working in two tenses: The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn't be in flashback. The heroine's memory, her affair with the German soldier, was the past, but the sound was in the present; we hear the sounds of Tokyo." Film critic John Francis Kreidl, writing in Alain Resnais, agreed with Monaco that the film ultimately turns out to be about the impossibility of making a documentary about Hiroshima.
In Resnais's 1961 work Last Year at Marienbad, a man and woman meet in a palatial home. The man insists that the two have met before and, further, that they had an affair the year before at a spa in Marienbad. Resnais uses the couple's encounter to examine memory, imagination, desire, and fulfillment. Of Last Year in Marienbad Resnais told Dupont, "I never thought of Proust; I thought of Andre Breton. [The film's screenwriter] Alain Robbe-Grillet and I were very impressed by surrealism… . Most of what hap pens is in the characters' imaginations, so the memory of silent film was a big influence." Monaco found the film to be essentially a story about storytelling.
Of Time and Remembrance
Resnais's next film, Muriel (1963), concerns a middle-aged woman who invites an old lover to visit her and her stepson, who has just returned from the war in the Algiers. The soldier is troubled by memories of a young girl who had been tortured to death in his presence, while the two former lovers suffer from their own painful memories. In the film Resnais uses time to explore the ways the past influences present experiences. Relating also to the historical present, Muriel captures the constraints placed on freedom in France by the Algerian war in 1962, and the mood associated with that period. To the director's disappointment, many critics disliked this film.
After creating what are considered to be Resnais's three masterpieces— Night and Fog, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and Marienbad —Resnais gained a reputation as one of the leading New Wave film directors. However, as he later explained to Dupont, Resnais did not consider himself "part of the New Wave, but thanks to [the impact made by its directors], I made movies… . Before, you had to be an assistant on nine films, and you couldn't just go from making a short to a feature. Finally, a producer asked me to make a feature, and I made three in a row, but after Muriel, which wasn't a success, I stopped for a while."
When he returned to his position behind the camera, Resnais again chose to dwell on time and remembrance. His richly emotional 1966 work La Guerre est finie concerns an aging Leftist, while Stavisky (1974) tells the story of a Russian-Jewish swindler in 1930s France. Providence, filmed in 1977 and Resnais's first English-language effort, deals with a dying novelist.
In Mon Oncle d'Amerique (1980) Resnais examines the interconnections in the lives of three individuals and interprets these connections using the biochemical theories of French biologist Henri Laborit about the workings of the human brain. In the film contrasts—distance and emotion, surrealism and the natural—are used to force the audience to an awareness of new possibilities. By playing disparate moods, tones, and styles off against each other, Resnais attempted to draw the viewer into a closer relationship with the film's characters.
On one level, 1983's Life Is a Bed of Roses tells the story of a wealthy count who constructs his "temple of happiness" during the 1920s. On another level, it presents a symposium on alternative education held at the site of the former temple.
Resnais's later films, which have not always been as well received by critics as were his work of the late 1950s and early 1960s, include L'Amour e mort (1984), Melo (1986), I Want to Go Home (1989), and Smoking and No Smoking (1993). In 1992 he directed a one-hour tribute to U.S. composer George Gershwin.
It has been reported that Resnais refuses to view any of his early films. "I don't think about them and can't stand seeing them again," he told Dupont. "It's painful, either because the people onscreen have died, or because I don't think the direction is good. There's always something." The films of other directors are a different matter, however. "When I was twelve, the passage from silent film to the talkies had an impact on me—I still watch silent films. I don't think that there is any such thing as an old film; you don't say, 'I read an old book by Flaubert,' or 'I saw an old play by Moliere.' "
Resnais's obsession with time and memory reflects a French tradition that goes back to Henri Bergson and Proust. In Night and Fog, for example, he attempts to recapture the past through a combination of archival film footage and poetry, while in Hiroshima, Mon Amour he adopts an imitation documentary format to examine the repercussions of the atomic bomb attack on Japan. In Last Year at Marienbad the film's characters attempt to rewrite their own history at a European spa.
Resnais told Luc Honorez of Le Soir that his life could be summarized by listing the names of some of the most influential individuals of the twentieth century: Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso, Gershwin, Hergé, and Franz Kafka. Still, he added, in spite of his advanced age he wanted to move on to other passions. The director insists that becoming fixated on any one of his many influences would be equivalent to signing up to die. The introduction of video and DVD technologies has allowed Resnais to study the films of fellow directors Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood, Victor Minnelli, F. W. Murnau, Jean Renoir, Tati, Charles Laughton, and Martin Scorsese.
According to Resnais, of all the arts only cinema is an absolute mystery because of the juxtaposition of objects, the attitudes of the actors, and the use of music. However, he views much of modern cinematography as a failure because the promotion of a film has become more important than what the film ultimately is. His own approach to his art has been determined by memories, including loves and sorrows, many of which originated in films, books, or songs. Regarding the power of twentieth-century cinema, Resnais has cited that the most effective films are those able to connect with those instinctive emotions people attempt to mask in order to appear less "animal-like."
Kreidl, John Francis, Alain Resnais, Twayne, 1977.
Monaco, James, Alain Resnais, Oxford University Press, 1979.
Filmmaker, Spring 2000.
Interview, November 1999.
Le Soir, May 21, 2002.