Three weeks before Alain Resnais died this past March, he had premiered his newest film, Life of Riley, at the Berlin Film Festival, which he completed at the age of 91. Resnais enjoyed a uniquely prolific streak of filmmaking in his later years that laughed at the prospect of retirement or death. For a moment it seemed possible that Resnais himself would continue to exist as ceaselessly as the memories that preoccupy his characters; thankfully, with his incredible body of work, Resnais is etched into eternity.
Resnais continued to experiment with the limits of cinematic form over fifty years after his career-defining work on Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon amour, and Last Year in Marienbad. The past decade of his career proved that age is no excuse for artistic resignation or repetition – while not nearly as well-known, more recent works including Private Fears in Public Places, Wild Grass, and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! challenged the medium with as much audacity and confidence as his canonical earlier works. Debating the status of “reality” in Last Year in Marienbad is one thing; explaining the ending of Wild Grass is another matter entirely.
So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a mind that always exists in both the past and present.
“Although I was not fully part of the New Wave because of my age, there was some mutual sympathy and respect between myself and Rivette, Bazin, Demy, Truffaut…So I felt friendly with that team.”
Though Resnais is often lumped in with the sea change in filmmaking that was the French New Wave, he was never officially associated with that collective which went from the pages of “Cahiers du Cinema” to realizing the most disruptive and game-changing movement in Western cinema. Instead, his range of collaborations were more expansive.
Resnais worked with Chris Marker on several documentaries during the 1950s (including the incredible critique of art world colonialism, Statues Also Die). In the late 1960s, he worked with several former New Wave-ers on the Left Bank-organized omnibus work of cinematic protest Far From Vietnam. In recent years, Resnais has adapted works of the stage and even asked fellow filmmakers to make short films featured within his films. According to Resnais scholar Robert Benayoun, the director saw writers as co-authors of his films, and treated screenplays as finished works of literature in their process of adaptation. He even refused to feature his name on his films’ credits more than once, even when he served multiple capacities.
Resnais’ sensibility is unmatched and unmistakable. He is a singular filmmaker. Yet his work was openly realized through the art of collaboration, through meeting and befriending other artists, through developing one’s evolving work through various collectives, and through recognizing the invaluable input of other artistic minds in the creative process. Resnais might be a singular filmmaker, but he has never existed in a vacuum.
Your Role is Not to Explain
In this interview for Last Year at Marienbad, Renais expresses a philosophy against explanation shared by later pioneers of enigmatic work like David Lynch and Abbas Kiarostami: after the film is made, the director should not interfere with the range of possible interpretations by the spectator. How “enigmatic” can a film be, then, when the audience is free to come up with (and debate) their own interpretations?
This approach not only anticipates an active and intelligent audience, but is also surprisingly democratic as explained here: it is a gesture of respect towards the spectator to acknowledge that they play a role in the film’s meaning. After all, without the spectator, the film would not exist.
But if the filmmaker’s job is not to explain, how is s/he supposed to communicate through cinema?
Communicate Through Form
“There cannot be any communication except through form. If there is no form, you cannot create emotion in the spectator.” [From a 1977 interview in Positif]
Suggest, Don’t Depict, the Horror
“But I came to see that all you could do was suggest the horror, that if you tried to somehow show something very real on the screen, the horror disappeared. So I had to use every means possible to set the viewer’s imagination in motion.”
Resnais is reflecting here on two earlier films he made that tackled colossal subjects of real-life horror: the Nazi concentration camps in Night and Fog and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Hiroshima mon amour. Each was unprecedented in its stark and direct depiction of recent events to explore themes of memory and trauma in the shadow of World War II.
The approach outlined above probably sounds familiar, as it closely resembles Hitchcock’s rule of using the viewer’s imagination to build suspense, and the mind’s ability to fill in gaps in order to allude to horror. But Resnais adopted this method for historical moments of incredible catastrophe. That doesn’t mean he avoids the reality – both films carry plenty of stomach-churning archival footage of the respective events they recall. However, Resnais juxtaposes such footage with startling moments of distance – an isolated contemporary Auschwitz with fields of green grass growing around it. The affect is much more troubling than, say, an on-screen death-count. Rensais asks us to fill in the gap we see, to reckon with the fact that an unconscionable thing happened here.
Resnais did the same with more immediate political controversies later in his career, like the conversations about the Algerian War amongst a French family in Muriel or a lecture about Vietnam in Far From Vietnam. He thus engages with the ways that historical events so often take shape in everyday life: as something we carry with us, no matter how near or far we are, spatially or temporally, from the “event” itself. To suggest the horror is not to shy away from it.
Devote Your Life to Film and to Curiosity
Frequent Renais collaborator Lambert Wilson discusses what it’s like to work with a director that he’s seen age over decades into his late 80s. No doubt age comes with certain physical limitations. But what I appreciate about Wilson’s comment here is his description of what happens when Resnais gets behind the camera or works with actors: his physical ailments do not go away, but they are ignored in the intoxicating presence of artistic curiosity.
From his love of multiple art forms to ceaselessly making films well into old age, Resnais lived a life of the mind because it is an eternally rich and profoundly ageless place in which to reside.
What We’ve Learned: Don’t Assume a Division Between Imagination and Reality
If there exists a governing principle of Resnais’ work, this is it. His early features explored how memories, clear or shrouded, are always a part of our lives in the present; we are perpetually revisiting, and thereby reshaping, the past. His more recent work experimented with the ways that cinema speaks to and intersects with other art forms. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, for instance, finds a troupe of actors watching a filmed stage production, reciting its lines, then performing it in a way that suggests they have transformed into the characters they are supposedly depicting.
Perceived boundaries between performance and person, reality and imagination, past and present are never so clear. In fact, these terms are arbitrary distinctions that distract from the complex ways we experience “real life.” Resnais’ artistry attempts to disentangle such false distinctions, and his work proved that cinema is a uniquely capable medium for doing so.