Thursday, September 11, 2014

Alain Resnais: A giant passes on

Alain Resnais was one of the few filmmakers unparalleled by anybody else. He was unequalled. Words can do scant justice to a man who did away with them almost completely in what he filmed. A true painter in the world of film. A true auteur. We shall never see the likes of him. Never again.

A giant with a quiet demeanour: that is what best could describe Alain Resnais, one of the cinema’s greatest visionaries, who passed away last Sunday aged 91. It is difficult to paste labels onto some directors, which is a sign of their immense vitality. Resnais was one of them. He was typically ranked with the political film movement that sprang up in France during the 1960s, but the truth was that he fitted with only one conception of cinema: his own.

Following a style that both moved him closer to and set him apart from contemporary film movements, he believed passionately in cinema’s close affinity to literature, something which was being disputed by the political filmmakers of his time. If one finds it difficult to fit him with any fixed label it is because, as with Spielberg and George Lucas, the themes that underlay his films remained faithful to his vision of art while echoing the spirit of the years they were made in. He was no dogmatist, and was not afraid to deviate from what most held as the “authentic” mode of cinema.

Resnais was born in Brittany in June 1922. He was a sickly child, amusing himself in his leisure hours by reading comics (by the 1970s he owned France’s largest private collection) and, later, operating an 8mm Kodak camera he had gotten as a birthday present. Unlike most directors in France at the time, he began his career as a maker of documentaries and short films, beginning with Van Gogh (1948), which won him an Oscar.

Night and Fog (1955) was his apogee, winning him universal acclaim (and controversy). It established him as an artist with extraordinary vitality and imaginativeness, mainly on account of how he tackled its theme, the Holocaust. Rather than approach it prudishly, even reluctantly, as was typical of the time, he directly used never-before seen footage of concentration camps to reveal, for the first time, the full force and horrors of genocide. It also established two themes he would, for the rest of his career, examine over and over again: time and memory.

Hiroshima Mon Amour
Nearly a decade later, he entered the cinema properly with his debut feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). By all accounts it represented a culmination of all his prior work, and would go onto win the Critics Prize at Cannes that year. His at times quirky tale of a two-day romantic interlude between a Japanese man and Frenchwoman underlay the more pressing theme in the story: the eventual encounter with the past that both had to make, the one with the horrors of Hiroshima, the other with a painful love affair carried on during the war.

What was noticeable in it was its deliberately non-linear structure. It was this that made critics aware of his role in the emergence of a new French cinema: critics would later term it the “New Wave.” But it was in his next film that he was to completely break ground with any coherent linearity in the narrative. This was, however, at the cost of positive reception with either critic or audience.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961) was quite certainly a bolder venture. It is notoriously difficult to understand on first viewing, even if the story is easy enough. A man and woman meet up at a labyrinth-like château: he tells her not only that they had met there last year, but that they had planned to elope then and there during the current year. The woman doesn't remember, and the man, persisting behind her in-spite of her jealous husband, reminiscences with her what exactly they did the last time they had been there. Past blends in with present, conflicting accounts of the same event are considered and then dismissed, and, in the end, despite their elopement, their confusion is not resolved: rather, what they escape to is even more confusion.

In Marienbad, more so than any of his other works, he tackled the theme of time and consciousness with imaginative insight: gone was any faithfulness towards a linear structure or clear-cut characterisation. Critics identified his cinema as sharing with the qualities of surrealism: the effect of comic books on his films was also noted.

There were other common undercurrents that flowed throughout his career: his insistence on shooting his scripts (which were mostly written by contemporary writers) without altering them, his belief of cinema’s relationship with literature (which was not widely held in France at the time), and his refusal to join the political movement prevalent at the time.

But he was not overtly indifferent to politics: indeed his sympathy for downtrodden individuals could be seen even in Night and Fog. Nor however was he openly political. In his subsequent films he displayed both political foresight (The War is Over, 1966 and Far from Vietnam, 1967) and an ability to adapt plays (My American Uncle, 1980) without altering their original outlook. He was directing films well into the 21st century – arguably one of the last great French filmmakers from his time to do so – with his most recent, Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter) released just three weeks before his death.

What filmmakers like Resnais demonstrated was that true art came from neither fidelity to one movement or the other, nor needless displays of political conviction, but rather from what the artist really believed to be his or her personal style. With him we lost one of the greatest artists from his era, from his country, and from this world.

His influence can still be felt in the movies of today - including, arguably, the ambiguous and malleable cinema of Christopher Nolan. Put it in another way: both Inception and the Batman Trilogy, so dazzling in our time and in their own right, owe considerably to one great visionary from 50 years back. That visionary is none other than Alain Resnais.