In a career spanning over sixty years, Alain Resnais (1922-2014) proved an inexhaustible explorer of the complex relationships between time and memory, truth and the subjectivity of the human mind. Intellectually rigorous, his films nonetheless remain immensely watchable, buoyed by a lightness of touch and a sheer beauty that effortlessly communicates the dreamlike interior of the mind.
Resnais began his film career immediately after World War II, directing innovative and wide-ranging documentaries and film essays before transitioning to narrative features at the end of the 1950s. His earliest feature films often reflect the impact of the Cold War and anti-colonial period on French society, but his initial success, Last Year at Marienbad, points the direction that much of his later work would take: experimental narratives that disrupt the smooth linearity of classical cinema and, in so doing, explore cinema’s ability to portray the flickering, unstable nature of the life of the mind and of the heart.
This tribute brings together a selection of Resnais’ work from the 1960s to the 2000s, including three screenings of a recent addition to the HFA’s collection: a new 35mm print of the too little-seen 1968 masterpiece Je t’aime, je t’aime.
Special thanks: Florence Almozini – the Film Office of the French Cultural Ministry, New York; Eric Jausseran – the Consulate of France in Boston.
Directed by Alain Resnais. With Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot,
France 1968, 35mm, color, 91 min. French with English subtitles
In Resnais’ only science fiction film, a suicidal man is recruited by a team of scientists to test their time machine, which has previously only been tried on mice. A malfunction in the machine traps him in his past, where he is forced to relive fragmentary pieces of his memories in no discernible order. From the disorienting imagery, a narrative revolving around a girlfriend whose death he may or may not have caused gradually emerges. A poetic exploration of the role of destiny, memory and time, Je t’aime explores the instinct of one man to cling to his past even as he watches it dissolve.
Directed by Alain Resnais. With Yves Montand, Geneviève Bujold,
France 1966, 35mm, b/w, 121 min. French with English subtitles
Yves Montand plays Diego, an aging Spanish revolutionary based in Paris who begins to question his beliefs, his group’s tactics and their effectiveness in Resnais’ landmark film. Using flashforwards, fantasies and imaginings to illustrate the constant unease of Diego’s mind, Resnais persuasively crafts the tale of one man’s commitment to a cause and the effect years of duplicity and mistrust have had on his psyche and his relationships. Montand’s world-weary charm lends a touching poignancy to his portrayal of Diego as an eternal outsider, a man without a country—or a fixed identity.
Directed by Alain Resnais. With Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff
France 1961, 35mm, b/w, 93 min. French with English subtitles
Resnais’ groundbreaking collaboration with Alain Robbe-Grillet is a hypnotic and haunting exploration of the subjectivity and mutability of memory, itself a dominant theme in Resnais’ work. The film’s dreamlike structure circles back on itself repeatedly, with the repetition of words and images evoking the intimacy and unreliability of memory as a man, known only as X, pursues a woman, A, through an upscale resort, insisting that they had an affair the year before and arranged to meet again, while she claims no memory of him. Resisting any easy interpretations, Resnais encourages uncertainty, dissolving the distinction between reality and fantasy, memory and fiction, while A and X, frozen in an endless loop, explore the infinite variations of their enigmatic interactions.
Directed by Alain Resnais. With Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier,
France/Italy 2009, 35mm, color, 104 min. French with English subtitles
After filming screenplays by such writers as Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jorge Semprun, Resnais brings a novel to the screen for the first time with this tale of a man and a woman thrown together by coincidence. Wild Grass joins Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel and Resnais’ Alan Ayckbourn adaptations in his canon of works about ambiguous relationships whose status and whose very existence seems to oscillate before our eyes, as the film blends comedy, romance and thriller. The mute presence of a movie theater and the eruption on the soundtrack of the 20th Century Fox fanfare remind us of Resnais’ belief in cinema as the perfect medium for what Proust called “the heart’s intermittences.”
Directed by Alain Resnais. With Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kérien, Jean-Baptiste Thierrée
France 1963, 35mm, color, 116 min. French with English subtitles
Muriel marks a return for Resnais to themes from earlier films – the unreliability of memory and, as in Hiroshima mon amour, the juxtaposition of the horrors of war, in this case torture, with a romantic relationship. As the title suggests, Muriel is deeply concerned with the past, focusing on characters who threaten to be consumed by their histories, which have indelibly shaped their lives and left them incapable of functioning in the present. Bernard, recently returned from the Algerian war, is haunted by his experiences there, while his stepmother returns to an old lover, less to reunite with him than to obsessively examine their past love. One of Resnais’ most politically engaged films, Muriel explores the devastating aftermath of war and the lasting trauma it inflicts.
Directed by Alain Resnais. With Gérard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia,
France 1980, 35mm, color, 125 min. French with English subtitles
Tracing three disparate characters as they navigate their personal and professional lives, My American Uncle defies traditional narrative structure by introducing a fourth figure, a behavioral scientist whose theories on human nature act as commentaries on the actions of the protagonists. The result is a fusion of fiction and documentary techniques, complicated by the film’s complex structure, with its three separate storylines, shifts back and forth in time and extensive voiceover narrative. Nowhere is the film more complex, however, than in its relationship to its three protagonists, who at first appear to be presented as case studies, a relationship Resnais ingeniously subverts by contrasting their emotional pain and fear with the coldly analytical voiceover of their “motivations” as explained by the scientist.
Directed by Alain Resnais. With John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde,
France 1977, 35mm, color, 110 min. In English
Resnais’ first film in English, this portrait of a writer’s last days, both autumnal and nightmarish, finds him surrounded by his family but also retreating into his imagination, with his final work reflecting his ambivalence towards his children and the women in his life. As in so much of Resnais’ work, the borders between history, memory and fantasy in Providence prove to be more permeable than solid, which Resnais brilliantly represents by giving the film’s locations a geographic fluidity – the spaces onscreen seem to oscillate between the real and the imaginary. The primary setting is an English country house that seems as haunted as the resort in Last Year at Marienbad.