I have collected here all the 300-word entries and the informal entries about films by Alain Resnais on this blog. However, please also see, under “film reviews” on this site, my full piece on Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, which everybody numbers among my very best pieces.
GUERNICA (Alain Resnais, Robert Hessens, France). “Women and children have the same red roses in their eyes—their blood for all to see.”
On April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Germany bombed Guernica, an ancient Basque town, burning it to the ground. The newsprint photograph of this outcome, with which Alain Resnais’s 13-minute documentary opens, seems to be dissolving into dots. Working its way up to Pablo Picasso’s commemorative painting made the same year as the event, Guernica shows, first, decades-earlier drawings and paintings of his that are especially suggestive, in this context, of innocence—an innocence that the Luftwaffe has now destroyed. Accompanied by sounds of bombardment, pieces of artwork, themselves seemingly targeted, partially disintegrate. Paul Eluard’s script, heard as poetic voiceover, laments war as the destruction of innocence.
Resnais never shows Picasso’s Guernica in its entirety, only bits and parts of it—isolated pieces, often given a blacked-out surrounding. The fragmentation again suggests bombardment while also creating its own kind of cubism. Hands are a motif that thread continuity between Picasso’s Guernica and his earlier artwork: hands that are tenderly embracing, prayerful, stretched up in horror; hands of connection, and hands of inconsolable loss. The black-and-white film, exceptionally dark, marshals a somber use of negative space and as often invokes Goya (in his bleakest etchings) as Picasso. The elegiac refrain “Guernica” haunts.
A field of sculptures, in context suggestive of a graveyard that war has generated, replaces the painting, culminating in Picasso’s 1944 bronze L’homme au mouton, which in contrast to Guernica is shown (frontally) whole. Its depth, in contrast to the painting’s flat patches, appears to animate it; the sculpture is alive with hope, the lamb in the man’s arms symbolizing the renewal of innocence.
Brilliantly edited by Resnais, Guernica is among his most powerful films.
STATUES ALSO DIE. Alas, I have only seen Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s Les statues meurent aussi in the infamously truncated version that the French government permitted for forty years. Even so, it’s a thing of passionate politics and dark, dazzling visual beauty.
The film opens in primordial darkness; a disembodied voice speaks: “When men have died they enter history. When statues have died they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.”
Light appears, revealing public sculptures; even outdoors, these are objects of art such as one might encounter in a Western museum. A passage in such a museum that cuts between a piece of art and a patron gazing at it underscores the point; the reality of the piece relies on the patron’s perception. This patron has entered the museum precisely to “see art”; seeing it is something she does in her life. It isn’t a part of her life. The piece no longer belongs to the person who created it and that person’s community.
African art is part of people’s everyday lives. But by uprooting it, colonialism has usurped its identity. This is emblematic of colonialism’s assault on African communities and human lives.
A tracking shot surveys piece after piece enrobed in darkness, but that is followed cuttingly by a montage of pieces, each one separate, isolated. Our eyes have replaced those of the patron. A montage of brilliantly grotesque death masks, intended to frighten away Death, now suggests labored curiosities: the impression on this art and its black African creators of Western museumitis. Elsewhere, scenes of Africans singing and variously working suggest the vitality from which African art has been cut off.
Statues also die when they aren’t growing in the vibrant garden of a people’s communal existence.
NIGHT AND FOG. The subject of the Holocaust has generated countless documentaries, including outstanding ones as the twentieth century drew to a close: Harun Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War (1989), Héctor Faver’s Memory of Water (1993) and Dariusz Jablonski’s Fotoamator (1998). But, closer to the event, Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard remains the finest.
Resnais’s theme is the need to preserve historical memory—memory ever poised to slip away. At the sight of the Auschwitz death camp, careless green grass sways in the breeze, while black-and-white photos and newsreel snippets commit the reality of Auschwitz to flypaper. A long overhead shot of a blank field is held until the camera descends to reveal the surrounding barbed wire fence, with this ironical accompanying voiceover: “A placid landscape . . . An ordinary field over which crows fly”—author Jean Cayrol’s reference to Van Gogh’s symbol of matter’s passage into ephemera.
The film’s signature mode is the tracking shot. The camera surveys the camp, noting the massive fence, this time from the inside, and remnants of some of the abandoned structures. The film cuts from one tracking shot to another, edited to compose, seemingly, one mind’s haunted journey, perhaps the return of a ghost. As the camera explores one of the barracks, we hear, “No description . . . can restore [the inmates’] true dimension: endless, uninterrupted fear.” What we cannot grasp is already lost.
Intermittently, Night and Fog revisits human horrors—historical memory’s overload: SS surgical experimentation on prisoners; the bulldozing of mounds of corpses into a mass grave. The commentary ends by weighing the matter of collective guilt (“War nods, but one has one eye open”), addressing denial and revisionism, and wondering aloud how much “the next executioners” will resemble ourselves.
ALL THE MEMORY OF THE WORLD. “The [Bibliothèque Nationale de France] is a model memory, stockpiling everything printed in France.” Alain Resnais’s wondrous documentary, marred a bit by Maurice Jarre’s jarring score, surveys France’s national library, which Resnais depicts as a world inside the world, a prison for books. During the film’s twenty-one minutes, voiceover narration indeed refers to the books as being “imprisoned” and as “prisoners.” Library patrons, by taking out books and reading them, give them their freedom and in the process further liberate themselves. The opening comment that libraries are only necessary because humans have poor memories, coupled with the identification of books that are read with freedom as well as knowledge, surely refers to the recent publication of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
But as a whole Toute la mémoire du monde relates in particular to Resnais’s greatest documentary, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), for which it provides an opposite image that nonetheless contains certain ironical links. The one-year-earlier short film, a postwar haunting of the Auschwitz death camp, is also about memory and also engages issues of confinement and release, and the card-cataloguing of books in the later film, the assignment of an identifying number to each book—no need to complete this sentence. But stark differences are also ironical. Whereas the Auschwitz film is in airy color, the Bibliothèque film is in oppressively underlit black-and-white; grass bends to a breeze at Auschwitz, while nothing visibly stirs at the library.
Memory in Nuit et brouillard, given official French assistance in transporting French Jews to their deaths, bears the burden of national shame; memory in Toute la mémoire du monde reflects richly earned national pride.
Indeed, human happiness is the destination, we are told, toward which the Bibliothèque is headed.
SONG OF THE STYRENE. “An Olympian film, of matchless gravity.” — Jean-Luc Godard, reviewing Alain Resnais’s Le chant du Styrène
With witty commentary written by Raymond Queneau, Le chant du Styrène was Alain Resnais’s last documentary before Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) launched his ongoing career in feature films. It was commissioned by a company, Péchiney, intent on singing the praises of its product, polystyrene. Indeed, the twenty-minute film visually summarizes in sharp detail the manufacturing process in the Péchiney factory; but no less than Georges Franju’s Hôtel des Invalides (1951), whose tour of a military museum undercuts France’s infatuation with the military, Resnais’s documentary is subversive and stunning.
Resnais’s method begins low-keyed, with polyp-like formations of the man-made substance resembling natural, organic forms. Moreover, inside the factory the machines that participate in the manufacturing process are shown in operation, in shot after shot after shot, absent all human involvement, thereby cunningly associating the product—indeed, the whole Plastic Age—with dehumanization. Both inside and out, the factory is atomized into brief shots from every conceivable angle, including overhead shots, which deepen the criticism of this dehumanizing energy; shots of the grounds and the factory’s exterior, especially given the tracking camera, may remind viewers of Resnais’s visit to Auschwitz in Night and Fog (1955).
Boldly photographed in color by Sacha Vierny, and brilliantly edited by Resnais and Claudine Merlin, the film is an industrial science film that is instead presented as though it were science fiction, to help prod the viewer into questioning the philosophical fallout from the Western world’s infatuation with all things plastic. Unless I am misremembering, only a single human figure appears in the film—and only for an instant. Resnais finds humanity, alarmingly, allowing itself to recede from a world badly in need of humanity.
HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR. What are we looking at? The opening of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour is beautiful and mysterious: in darkness, glistening forms. Out of this formless mass, with its primordial echo, two bodies gradually appear: a couple making love. She is a French actress, in Hiroshima for an anti-war shoot; He, a Japanese architect. The earlier glitter? Symbolically, the radioactivity from which nothing in Hiroshima can escape? Its indeterminate nature and that of the initial forms: the awful experience of Hiroshima that She cannot know about, no matter her investigation of the commemorative museum there, or She’s awful experience at Nevers that He cannot know about, no matter how much She reminisces. Strangers, the two spend a day together, having sex, walking, having a drink together: passing time, emptying time, phantom/persons setting their souls to the rhythm of time.
Philosopher Henri Bergson wrote that human consciousness is a memory. Resnais’s first feature is attuned to this suggestion. It is a complex fugue on the interplay of time, memory, history and intimacy, intricately edited, with slow forward trackings (through hotel, hospital, streets, etc., edited at the outset into a single movement) suggesting an ambling mind homing in on itself, with flashbacks giving the impression of a soft rainshower, and with Marguerite Düras’s solemn, repetitive prose pitched somewhere between the articulate and the unspoken or unspeakable.
Exquisitely sensitive, Emmanuèlle Riva plays the actress who is searching somebody else’s past, which is, at some level, really her own. Her fleeting affair with the architect triggers memories of her earlier “forbidden” love for a German soldier during the Occupation. Or is this memory a dream of history, the guilty personal rendering of a national shame?
Despite a patina of preciousness (French cinema’s Achilles’ heel), here is adventurous filmmaking.
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. Resnais’s grand hotel in Last Year at Marienbad, in haunting black and white, is the Mansion of Europe housing France’s memory. The twentieth century’s traumatic events, beginning with the Great War, have emptied the mansion of inhabitants. Everyone now is a guest in what used to be a home. The place feels abandoned by history. No one quite knows anyone else because people do not quite know themselves anymore.
Resnais and scenarist Alain Robbe-Grillet share an irritation with conventional narrative, that is to say, plot, a lack of interest in character psychology, and a more flexible sense of time than chronology permits. Motivated to forget the century’s horrors, can we be selective and retain the memory of love which once helped bring a sense of continuity to our lives? Few films seem as hermetically sealed as this one, but its insistence that it exists apart from our chaotic shared world only underscores its connection to that world. Hotel guests retreat into a fantastic realm where order can be (however unsuccessfully) imposed.
Fluid, upwardly tilted tracking shots through hotel corridors eternize human preoccupation with time. An elegant pair “reunite” in what may be, actually, their first meeting. How can one remember love when memory exists in time and in time’s passing, but love exists, sublimely, outside time? At once this-worldly and otherworldly, Classical and Romantic, rigorous and at capricious liberty, Resnais’s masterpiece is a compulsive yet unfettered dream that fulfills while yet confounding desire. The film’s trackings are our eye’s journey, the film’s voiceovers the voice that the muteness of dream denies us. Like an epiphany, however mysterious, even unfathomable, Last Year at Marienbad is also crystal-clear—and cold, beautifully cold: the memory of love longing to be filled by the feeling of love.
Please also see my full essay on Last Year at Marienbad, which is categorized under “film reviews.”
MURIEL OR THE TIME OF A RETURN. Written by Jean Cayrol and directed by Alain Resnais, Muriel ou Le temps d’un retour takes place during two weeks mostly in early October 1962, that is to say, after Algeria’s achievement of independence in July following war between France and its colony that had begun in 1954. Information about the French military’s widespread use of torture on Algerians had also come to light. With its topical brace of history, Resnais’s film is a haunted repository of ongoing relevance.
Delphine Seyrig gives a beautiful performance as Hélène, a widow who sells antiques in Boulogne. She lives with stepson Bernard, who is haunted by memories of Muriel, an Algerian girl he tortured and killed while soldiering in Algiers. Hélène remembers love: her first love, Alphonse, whose visit (with his current mistress, masquerading as his niece) is ostensibly the “return” to which the title refers. Moreover, Alphonse keeps “returning” to his fifteen years in Algeria, where he may never have actually been. Bernard keeps returning in his mind to Algiers, and as a result (possibly) kills again: this time, Robert, with whom he tortured and killed Muriel. Or is the memory of Muriel an oppressive phantom encapsulating for individuals a national burden of guilt? The substance to which our memories allude is elusive because it is dispersed throughout our sensible lives.
Resnais’s trademark intricate editing creates a mosaic of past, present and, implicitly, future—lives fractured by war, even on the homefront. Humanity breaks down when memory is either attached to or dissociated from traumatic experience.
The titular “return” refers also to Cayrol and Resnais’s return to their previous collaboration, Night and Fog (1955), a documentary survey of the history that haunts Auschwitz and Resnais’s only previous film also in color.
LA GUERRE EST FINIE. Yves Montand, in perhaps his finest performance, brings weary humanity to the role of Carlos Diego, a “full-time revolutionary,” part of Spain’s dedicated underground anti-Franco network. The Spanish Civil War, which replaced Spain’s democracy with fascism, ended a quarter-century ago.
It is a life of constant danger in a “landscape of self-exile.” Crossing the border between Spain and France, Diego is stopped by the police. Juan, who is in Barcelona for a few days more, must be warned against going to Madrid lest he be caught in the current series of raids. Comradery—political solidarity—contributes more to Diego’s existence now than political hope. But it is comradery on the run—rather than extended times together, bits and pieces of shared time: time fractured by political history.
”Once again you cross the border in the early morning light”: Jorge Semprun’s splendid script brings out the poetry in Diego’s soul and the fear in his heart. Alain Resnais’s superlative filmmaking integrates tracking shots—moments of transport and flight—and static shots, the nuts-and-bolts of meetings and strategy sessions. A night with Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, marvelous) matters; no film shows better the capacity of tender intimacy to repair for a little a frayed life.
The film’s grayness is correlative to Diego’s gray existence, the pursuit of freedom for Spain that has long since passed from adventure to monotonous struggle, endless work. The title on one level is ironic; on another, it expresses anxiety. Perhaps the war really is over, fought and won by the wrong side, with no real possibility of shifting Spain’s political course.
”You’re fatter,” a comrade notes. Diego: “. . . the easy life.”
La guerre est finie was initially as overrated as Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) was underrated. However, it is a fine film about an anonymous, committed, largely invisible life.
JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME. Written by Jean Sternberg (?), I Love You, I Love You is Alain Resnais’s most daring attempt to use images and editing to suggest thought processes. Claude, recuperated following a suicide attempt, is recruited by scientists who are researching time in order to verify their experiment with a mouse, which they believe they succeeded in transporting to a moment in its past before bringing it back to the present. But something goes awry with the human version of the experiment, and Claude is stuck in the past, not only recapturing a lost moment of time, but also reliving seemingly random fragments of the past, many revolving around his conviction that he has murdered a woman, Catrine. Among the events that Claude relives is his attempted suicide.
An astonishing essay on how the human mind organizes time elements thematically, achronologically, this science-fiction poem gives Claude a companion for his time-travel: his predecessor, the mouse—a perplexed image of himself, it turns out, straining for breaths in the cage, in this instance, the belljar of time that proves its eventual home.
Wry dialogue includes the delightful possibility that the cat was created in God’s image, and that man was created to be the cat’s slave and caregiver. By extension, time’s relation to humanity is a cat-and-mouse game. A cab driver casually asks Claude, “Have you got time?” Really, time has us.
Resnais’s film can seem a fiendishly desentimentalized version of Frank Capra’s lugubrious It’s a Wonderful Life (1946); but its ultimate effect recalls the powerful last shot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): Everyman, on a ledge, all but falling, fixed in helplessless, guilt, loss, regret.
Moreover, this haunting film, especially given its themes of time, loss and memory, anticipates another great work of science fiction: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972).
STAVISKY . . . Alain Resnais’s pre-World War II tragedy depicts actual French history for its elusive reality; there is about it an air of surmise. This suits its protagonist (Jean-Paul Belmondo, excellent), the Ukrainian-born son of Jewish immigrants, passing for Gentile, whose fraudulent financial dealings, including the floating of worthless bonds, in 1934 upheaved the government, undoing the political Left and taking France to the brink of civil war. A French Gatsby, Serge Alexandre Stavisky roams the ethers of social elegance, nearly as unknown to himself as to others as a result of cultural dislocation and uprooted identity, and fiercely in pursuit of recognition and affection. He is driven by more than greed. He wants desperately to believe that he exists. Hounded by grief and guilt over the suicide of his father, who felt dishonored by his son’s earlier activities, Stavisky is restless, perpetually “in play.” His flight from anonymity leads to his death and to his becoming a national scapegoat.
Working from a script by Jorge Semprun, Resnais counterpoints Stavisky with Trotsky, who in 1933 gained admittance to Paris. Soviet dictator Stalin pursued the exile’s assassination partly because Trotsky continued to work for the revolutionary aim of workers’ democracy that Stalin had betrayed at home. Resnais’s film finds a parallel between the two men, Trotsky and Stavisky, that becomes a fluid pair of intersecting lines in imaginative and political space.
A film of frosty blues and whites, Stavisky . . . is assembled as a mosaic of pieces of time correlative to Stavisky’s fractured existence and the crumbling existences of France and, indeed, the whole of Europe.
As Resnais films go, this one is a bit of a chore for me to navigate; not so my brother, who thirty years ago described Stavisky . . . as “sheer pleasure.”
PROVIDENCE. How does one evaluate Alain Resnais’s first English-language film, which he directed haplessly from a tricky, overwritten script by playwright David Mercer that includes, however, a coda that soars? At night a portentous camera slowly roams the grounds of Providence, the luxuriant estate of dying British author Clive Langham, who, indoors, is imagining his new novel, whose main characters are somewhat maliciously based on his son, prosecutor Claud[e], illegitimate son Kevin and daughter-in-law Sonia, Claud[e]’s wife. In the film’s long, bad part, we see these fictional imaginings of Clive’s as though they inhabit reality, with inserts of Clive at work, or accompanied by his voiceover. In the poignantly brief, lovely coda, the occasion of Clive’s seventy-eighth birthday has brought celebrants Claud[e], Sonia and Kevin to Providence, where their afternoon dinner takes place outdoors.
Clive is an atheist, but it is not for nothing that his home is named Providence. “I disapprove of death,” he explains. “You begin to sniff the temptation of believing in something.” At the end of this odious, laborious film, we realize that the nasty novel upon which Clive is working, if only in his mind, like its predecessors helps ensure that he doesn’t collapse into God’s phantom, that is to say, non-existent arms.
The film concludes with a killer line—Clive’s premonition of his imminent end. Clive has asked his guests to leave “without kiss or touch.” He is thus seated at table alone. He has been drinking wine. He fills his glass, saying to himself aloud, “I think there’s time for just one more.”
Providence won seven Césars including best film, direction, script; the French critics also named it best film. John Gielgud (best actor, New York critics) is terrible as Clive until the coda, where he is moving and haunting.
MON ONCLE D’AMERIQUE. Alain Resnais’s Mon oncle d’Amérique blends documentary and fictional aspects. Evolutionary biologist/behaviorist Henri Laborit, who appears as himself, had selected Resnais as the logical person to direct a documentary in which he, Laborit, would present his views about human behavior on the basis of experiments with rats. Resnais brought in Jean Gruault to expand the concept, however, by devising a script about fictional characters to accompany Laborit’s science lectures. A female and two males, these characters whose lives intersect come from different backgrounds; they are a one-time radical who subsequently pursues careers in acting and business, a factory middle-manager who anxiously faces corporate downsizing, and a public radio news manager who leaves wife and kids for the actress. Their autobiographical voiceovers extend a documentary air to the fiction. Depending on one’s point of view, the film conforms to a point-point model, in which fictional characters illustrate Laborit’s ideas, a point-counterpoint model, in which the characters’ actions and behaviors ill match Laborit’s ideas, or a more elusive and ambiguous thing that falls somewhere in between these two models—if you will, a partial illustration.
Among the issues addressed: inhibited behavior; uninhibited behavior/“defensive violence”; circumstances under which one turns aggressive behavior against oneself or others; the relationship between social conditioning and nervous system functioning; competition; domination; “what we call ‘mental illness’”; group and individual survival; the cultural, political and geopolitical applications of all these, including war and racism.
Laborit: “Language convinces the individual that in serving the group he is serving himself.”
The title refers to an illusory ideal of happiness. What one of the characters says: “America doesn’t exist. I know; I lived there.”
Wonderfully, characters at certain points wear rat heads!
The film ends with a montage of building bricks, a metaphor for human “personality” and the unconscious.
LIFE IS A BED OF ROSES. Three time-frames infiltrate one another; three stories interlock—and a fourth, medieval story is contained in the contemporary story as an expression of children’s imagination. Alain Resnais’s La vie est un roman—literally, Life Is a Romance, but in the States, Life Is a Bed of Roses—is all about imagination: imagining a royal estate, imagining a utopian society that’s also expressionistic and solipsistic, imagining two persons in bed contrary to what appears to be their natural paths of sexual interest. There’s something of a Shakespearean fairy-tale air hanging about, and much of the film is (monotonously) punctuated by original choral music. Jean Gruault wrote the script, perhaps on a whim.
A lifetime ago my brother described a particular Resnais film as “sheer pleasure,” and that sums up what Resnais films generally have been for me. Watching this one, though, bored me stiff. Early on there’s a visual and contextual coup, and I had a foreboding things were going to go badly when it registered for me as mere cleverness. Just prior to the outbreak of the Great War, a count unveils outdoors a model for the castle he intends to have built. Darkness and flames soon after become the backdrop for the model: war has erupted, engulfing Europe and putting on hold its aristocratic dreams, which will have to reinvent or reconfigure themselves in order to survive (see Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion, 1937). This is amazing stuff, with the model baldly announcing itself as a movie miniature, thus calling attention to its own artifice, illusion and superficiality in a mentally gymnastic postmodern way. My mind spoke to me: “This is delightful”; but I wasn’t delighted. Rather, I was vaguely annoyed, and as the film proceeded my annoyance continued and deepened.
Rather than intellectual, this film comes off as overly intellectualized, and it wastes a lot of good actors in uninteresting roles.
LOVE UNTO DEATH. A frantic Elisabeth struggles with Simon on their bedroom floor. Apparently Simon has had a heart attack. Dr. Rozier pronounces him dead.
After the doctor has left, though, light as air Simon descends the corkscrew staircase that reminds us of the spiral staircase encapsulating the mysteries of Time in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Simon, we learn, abandoned wife and children a couple of months earlier to live with Elisabeth. Are we watching Elisabeth’s fantasy of Simon’s resurrection? “I don’t think I loved you before,” Elisabeth declares. “Before?” “Before your death.”
Directing from Jean Gruault’s script, Resnais tweaks Time in L’amour à mort. A genetic botanist, Elisabeth works toward the future; an archaeologist, Simon digs into the past. At a site, Elisabeth tells Simon, “Here come Judith and Jérôme,” a long-married couple, both ministers, and Simon’s oldest friends. A long-shot follows, which we expect to be a point-of-view shot of the Martignacs’ arrival; but Elisabeth and Simon are also in the shot, making their way down a hill. Time has turned, briefly collapsed.
Resnais has stated that music set the film’s course. (Hans Werner Henze is the composer.) Simon is haunted by music he heard when he was “[a]mong the dead,” which eludes his memory, however. But we hear it periodically, the accompaniment to full-screen inserts of vast mystery: dark heavens in which white specks float around representing stars, snowflakes, drifts of Time. (This implicitly placed us “[a]mong the dead.”) Sometimes the inserts are only blackness, and sometimes the inserts are so frequent that the human drama seems what’s inserted.
As Simon dies again Elisabeth promises to join him. They already seem a fully meshed couple; the Martignacs, an unmeshed one. Resnais’s final shots suggest that the film has always really been about the Martignacs.
MELO. For Alain Resnais, making a film that unfolds in time in a simple forward direction is an “experiment”! Mélo, from Henri Bernstein’s play, mines Resnais’s signature theme, past haunting the present and thus helping to determine future, but without constructing an intricately edited mosaic of different time elements; and in this instance the situation developing this theme seems uncomfortably conventional: a married woman’s adultery with a friend of her husband and the guilt this engenders, finally driving her to commit suicide. Conventional plot, conventional treatment; can we call this Resnais?
Yes; and despite the fact that it’s widely considered one of Resnais’s lesser works, Mélo may be as good an index of his filmmaking brilliance as any other Resnais film.
In 1926, a dinner at a couple’s home; the host and hostess entertain one guest: the host’s friend, a violinist who has a concert career while the host toils modestly in an orchestra and gives lessons on the side. But Pierre has one thing that Marcel doesn’t: Romaine (Sabine Azéma, best actress César). At least until tomorrow. As the friends talk, the camera records something extraordinary: the new couple, Marcel and Romaine, gradually taking shape from the clay of the married couple and their guest, with the host none the wiser. It simply occurs, with only a minimum of subtle flirting on Romaine’s part, and a corresponding bit of vacant loneliness on Marcel’s part, in the direction of the eventual outcome; our seeing this almost entirely innocent process (as innocent as anything human can possibly be) neuters any inclination we may have to pass judgments, thereby enlarging our capacity to take in the outcome’s generalities and particulars. Moreover, while compositions stress the connectedness of the trio, the camera moves to isolate Marcel, enrobing him in the darkness of the failed romantic past he seems fixated on, to suggest the possibility of his upcoming betrayal of Pierre. It is Romaine, however, whose guilt will prove the most corrosive—and, in an odd way, Pierre’s, whose subsequent illness reflects the double betrayal, by spouse and friend, that he doesn’t quite know about but also, unconsciously at least, doesn’t quite not know about. Pierre is heartsick, and Romaine may be trying to bring things to some sort of conclusion by poisoning him on the side.
Despite what you might have read, this is a great film. Its title, incidentally, reflects the melodramatic genre to which the plot belongs—and more: especially on the twin axes of past and present and openness and deceit, Mélo explores the line along which marriage and adultery themselves conform to the nature of melodrama.
Early on, Marcel muses about “the joy of long ago.” He is lying, or he is whistling in the dark.
I WANT TO GO HOME. Alain Resnais’s films possess rigor, a quality notably lacking in his mostly English-language I Want to Go Home, a comedy about the gap between an estranged father and daughter and, also, French and U.S. attitudes and culture. The father, a septuagenarian cartoonist (beautifully played by Adolph Green—yes, that Adolph Green), is in Paris for an exhibition of comic strip work, including his, but, really, to see his daughter, Elsie, who is completing her graduate dissertation on Flaubert, and who hasn’t written him once during the two years she has lived in France. Her parents were divorced; her mother, to whom she was close, is deceased. Joey Wellman, the father, arrives with longtime live-in, Lena. Resnais won a best film prize at Venice (but not the Golden Lion of St. Mark) for this amiable, engaging comedy and sometime satire.
It also won the best screenplay prize at Venice for U.S. cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Feiffer has written drivel for the movies before; his script launched the atrocious Carnal Knowledge (1971), whose faults (among them, shallowness and crudeness) Mike Nichols’s direction compounded. The script is somewhat better this time, but its sentimentality—an American bugaboo—necessitated Resnais’s unaccustomedly loose style. Resnais tried his best to rein in the Bad Feiffer in order to let the Good Feiffer, the satirical Feiffer, prevail. Although he isn’t working at his usual high level here, Resnais is not the problem with this film. Feiffer is.
Gérard Depardieu, no less, plays Elsie’s professor, Christian Gauthier, who is a fan of her father’s artwork and other aspects of American culture. Micheline Presle, no less, plays Gauthier’s mother, Isabelle, the masquerade at whose country home invokes Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939). There are also numerous references to Green’s career.
SAME OLD SONG. In hommage to a British television mini-series, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986), Same Old Song (On connaît la chanson) is an unusual musical film; when they open their mouths to let out with a song, the characters are actually lip-synching familiar tunes in popular recordings. These songs reveal what the characters are thinking.
Alain Resnais, that ol’ light musical-comedy film magician (well, here he is!), directs from a sparkling romantic script by Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, who also play characters in the film. Each of the latter won two Césars, for their supporting performances and their collaborative script. André Dussollier won as best actor. Resnais won for the year’s best film. The French film critics also named Same Old Song the year’s best film, and it won as well the Prix Louis Delluc. Resnais, who had made some of the world’s grimmest great movies, had a lot that year to sing and smile about.
This one is as light as a soufflé, but a subtle chord of melancholy deepens the aftertaste. One knows the song; it is the mortal song of life and love.
CŒURS. One of Alain Resnais’s loveliest films, Cœurs, based on Alan Ayckbourn’s play Private Fears in Public Places, is an upclose meditation on six crisscrossing lives in Paris. Its leitmotif is sparse falling snow that appears outdoors and in, conflating the emotional distance between venues, and evoking the fragile nature of feeling and the transience of life. Snow falling outside is extended indoors, by way of superimpositions, and when this expressionistic technique is erased we still see snow falling outdoors, through an open door, perhaps, converting expressionism to naturalism and leaving us a little haunted. Resnais is always humane; here, more intimately so.
The main characters: a real estate agent; his co-worker; Lionel, a bartender at a hotel whose father is in his son’s care and is dying; the father (Claude Rich, hilariously libidinous in an offscreen performance); Lionel’s most committed barfly, whose partner had been the agent’s client in search of a new apartment—a new life—for the both of them; the barfly’s new girlfriend, the agent’s sister.
Charlotte, real estate agent Thierry’s devout Catholic co-worker, keeps giving shy Thierry tapes of a TV program, Songs That Changed My Life, but with an add-on: herself in strutting sexual get-up. Following her cue, one day at work he steals a kiss, only to be greeted by incensed virtue; impelled by worries of charges of sexual harassment, he proffers profuse apologies. In truth, if only he could see it, the one he ought to be pursuing is client Nicole (Laura Morante, wonderful), but Thierry doesn’t know that Nicole has parted ways with her barfly-boyfriend. But one is always inside and outside one’s own life, like the snow, and loneliness seems to be what one can settle on.
The TV show provides pseudo-documentary excerpts inside Resnais’s melancholy dream.
WILD GRASS. We glean from Georges Palet’s thoughts, which we hear as voiceover (intermixed with some omniscent voiceover), that he has a problem: he has killed, has been incarcerated for it, and must work steadily at suppressing an urge to kill again. The shot of a multitude of working timepieces at the jeweler’s to which he has gone to get the battery in his watch replaced tells us, also, that Georges (as well as the director) is obsessed with time. He is no longer young, although his younger wife, Suzanne, is devoted and, currently, anxiously loyal.
Directing Les herbes folles is 87-year-old Alain Resnais, so we think of his longtime, considerably younger partner, actress Sabine Azéma, especially since she plays Marguerite Muir, the dentist whose wallet, stolen by kids along with her still missing pocketbook, Georges finds by his car in a commercial parking lot and, given his criminal past, reluctantly turns into the police. Georges (André Dussollier, at his best) is attracted to the photograph in her wallet of Marguerite in full regalia as an airplane pilot. They talk, quarrel, meet, part, kiss. Resnais’s impeccable mise-en-scène includes imagery both grounded (grasses and weeds bursting through concrete) and airborne (repeated shots of Marguerite’s pocketbook, having been grabbed by the thieves, seemingly floating on its own through air). Finally, the Palets end up in the private plane that Marguerite is piloting when she fatefully turns over the controls to Georges. Throughout, the vulnerabilities of these three characters have been given a good airing; now, disaster strikes. But note Resnais’s navigation of camera and sound; we see and hear nothing—which to this cinéaste means that Resnais can’t let harm come to these people or let go of them.
A film of some wit, strained charm, and little else.