RIP Cinema Giant Alain Resnais
Resnais' early work in short documentary film led to Night and Fog in 1955, which arguably put him on the world map. Using a combination of contemporary colour footage of the abandoned concentration camps and black-and-white archival footage of the atrocities, it was the first time much of the world was exposed to the truth of the Nazi atrocities, and I dare anyone, even today, to watch and not be moved.
Continuing his themes of memory and consciousness, his first feature length film came in 1959. Eschewing traditional classical narrative storytelling, Hiroshima Mon Amour uses documentary footage on the atomic bombing of Japan in WWII in combination with a fictional love story between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva, in the film that would launch her career) and a married Japanese architect. It further developed Resnais' experimentation with montage, and distanciation between spectator and subject.
His experimental form would go even firther in his collaboration with author Alain Robbe-Grillet on the film Last Year in Marienbad (1961). In what feels like a dreamscape, a woman and two men discuss a possible meeting the previous year, but constantly talk and move in circles. It was the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and still stymies cinephiles worldwide as to its meaning. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet would always give conflicting answers, adding to its mystery.
While his early work often centred around difficult and controversial political topics, in his later years, he turned more to the personal in his narrative obsessions with death and memory. He still continued experimentation with narrative form, in films such as My American Uncle (1980) and Life is a Bed of Roses (1983), and also adapted theatre plays such as Mélo (1986) and Smoking/No Smoking (1993). He adapted several of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's plays, including Private Fears in Public Places (2006) and the aforementioned
Life of Riley (2014).
He is sometimes associated with the French New Wave, but Resnais shares more in common with Chris Marker and Agnes Varda than Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffault, in both thematic concerns of memory and film aesthetics of the experimental and documentary, association with nouveau roman, and much more through a stream-of-consciouness mode and narrative discontinuity. For Resnais, imaginary life and real life were not separate; while there is a great formalism to his work, whether it be the more political seriousness of his early work or the more playful touch of the later films, he sought to erase the borders between reality and the imaginary of the unconscious. He was always focused on experimenting with the form of cinema, whether that be with documentary, theatre or music.
I doubt there is a film school, at least in the west, that doesn't show a few of Resnais' films to its students, and doubtless many cinematheques around the world will mount retrospectives in the coming months. Resnais leaves behind an incredible legacy, showing that filmmakers can keep playing and adapting the form right until the end.