Memories of Alain Resnais, Cinema’s Explorer of Memory

'Hiroshima, Mon Amour,’ 'Last Year at Marienbad,’ 'Night and Fog’ and 'Providence’ are just some of the pathfinding movies by the French director, who died Saturday at age 91.

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Since many of the best films by the great French director Alain Resnais, who died on Saturday at age 91, dealt with the vagaries of memory, I’ll begin with a memory of my own. I met Resnais for the first time at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, along with a small group of other journalists, and I remember how excited I was to meet this director whom I so greatly admired, whose work I knew so well.

Resnais, then 90, was at the festival for the screening in competition of his penultimate film, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!” based on two plays by Jean Anouilh. At the time, because of Resnais’ advanced age, the movie’s playful title and its subject of death, many people believed this movie would mark Resnais’ farewell to the art form to which he dedicated his life. But he managed to direct one more film, “Love, Drink and Sing,” which was recently shown at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Alfred Bauer Prize. This last movie, which I haven’t yet seen, is based on a play by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Resnais based several of his films on Ayckbourn’s works, and the title of his final movie also sounds like it could be a last will and testament from this tremendous artist.

The face of an artist

Resnais, frail but clear-eyed, the slightest trace of a smile on his lips, arrived wearing a red shirt, as usual. The deep color was striking in combination with his white hair and chiseled face. Even more than I wanted to hear him speak about his new film, I just wanted to gaze at that face, which was the face of the cinema he had created over the past six decades. He had forged one of the most unique and adventurous cinematic journeys in the history of the art, and he was one of the most important influences on cinema’s new path after World War II.

The meeting didn’t last very long, but throughout I wavered between watching and listening, between apprehension and excitement, a feeling that seemed to fit my memory of his films, many of which seemed to move in a kind of no-man’s-land: between the Hiroshima of then and now in “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” his first full-length feature, based on a script by Marguerite Duras, which brought Resnais his first international fame; between Marienbad then and now in the 1966 film “Last Year at Marienbad,” based on a script by Alain Robbe-Grillet, which solidified Resnais’ standing as a harbinger of cinematic modernism that straddled the line between what is real and what imagined, between cinema and theater (and many of Resnais’s films were based on plays), between the stern and the amusing – and most of all, between life as it really is and as it exists in memory. I absorbed the memory of that encounter with Resnais into my life, and now that he has died, this memory has become the final image for me not only of the cinematic adventure that was his magnificent career, but of my own experience of his filmmaking.

Starting out

He was born in Brittany in 1922, the only son of a pharmacist. When he was 12, his father gave him an 8mm camera and he began making short films. Resnais originally wanted to be an actor. He moved to Paris in 1939, worked as a casting assistant at a theater and studied acting. In 1943 he switched direction and enrolled in the prestigious, newly-opened IDHEC film school. All of his movies until “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” were documentaries, but this is a misleading definition, since within this genre Resnais created a wide variety of movies that foreshadowed the broad range that would later typify his feature films.

His movies document places that, seen through his lens, become an almost abstract experience, just as he did later on with Hiroshima, Marienbad and even an artificially snowy Paris in the 2006 movie “Private Fears in Public Places.” The best-known of these movies is “All the Memory in the World” (1956), which toured the halls of France’s National Library as if probing world civilization. Other films he directed in the first decade of his career had to do with painting and art, including “Van Gogh” (1948), “Gauguin” (1950) and “Statues Also Die” (1953) about African art, which he directed with Chris Marker.

These films were not straight documentaries about an artist and his work, but rather cinematic musings that arose from thinking about different artists and their work, but which dealt first and foremost with their place in memory and consciousness. This was especially prominent in one of his most ambitious films of the time – “Guernica” (1950), which took on Pablo Picasso’s famous painting and used it as the basis for a simultaneously scathing and poetic discussion of the essence of the memory of the horror immortalized in the painting.

In 1956, his interest in memory and its historical and present-day meaning led him to direct “Night and Fog,” considered the first movie to deal with the memory of the Holocaust. The movie is not without certain problematical aspects – for example, the word “Jew” is never uttered in the commentary, written by Jean Cayrol – but this is not to diminish its importance as the movie that laid the cinematic basis for the documenting of this memory,

Oppressive war memories

The war also found its way into his first full-length feature, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” in the encounter that takes place between a French actress who has experienced the horrors of the German occupation and a Japanese man who tells her, “You haven’t seen anything in Hiroshima.” In other words, that his memory of what happened to the city and its people cannot penetrate her memory and understanding, just as her memory cannot really penetrate his. Other wars appeared in Resnais’ next films: The Algerian war in “Muriel,” his third full-length feature, made in 1963, and the Spanish Civil War in “The War is Over” (1966). In these movies, too, war is present as an oppressive memory, one that the characters refuse to let go.

The structure of Resnais’ films sometimes resembled a maze that viewers had to find their way through. Over the years, Resnais revealed his love for more and more cultural precincts, from pop culture to high culture: his love for science fiction (evident in his 1966 movie “I Love You, I Love You” and to a certain extent in 1980’s “My American Uncle”); for comics (for years he hoped to make a film based on the “Dick Tracy” strip, but never did); for musical films (such as his 1997 film, “Same Old Song,” in which French chansons sung by the finest practitioners of the form sprang from characters’ mouths, and also “Not on the Lips” from 2003, based on an old, forgotten operetta); and primarily the theater, fascinated as he was by the encounter between its artificial dimension and the realistic dimension of film. He loved actors, loved recording their work, and he loved playwrights.

He also loved British culture. The screenplay for his only English-language film, “Providence” (1977), was written by playwright David Mercer, and his adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays include, in addition to his final film, “Smoking/No Smoking” (1973) and “Private Fears in Public Places.” “Melo” (1986), a clever romantic paean to theatrical melodrama and one of his most enjoyable movies, is based on an obscure play by Henry Bernstein that had its New York debut in 1929.

Memory also played a role in these films. When I met him, Resnais told me that one reason he wanted to make “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!” in which several groups of actors perform Anouilh plays, is that the veteran actors who appear in the film are drawn into these plays and spill out the text, which they have recited before sometime in the past, from memory. Thus the theater in the film becomes a memorial site and preserves memory in the face of the threat of death. Like many of Resnais’ movies, in which randomness sometimes takes over, this movie also deals with partings and re-encounters between the actors who appear in it and the characters they play. These partings and meetings, Resnais told me then, are beyond memory, beyond time, perhaps even beyond life and death.

Cinematic maze

Here is the thread that runs through all of this great director’s enormously rewarding work, turning it into a kind of maze, but the most enchanting maze the cinema has ever seen. Resnais offered this maze as another option versus the type of filmmaking that documents and invents, observes and imagines, criticizes and amuses. His art grew out of one of the greatest moments in the history of cinema. It ushered this moment into the present where we are now and continues to enrich it, even if the moment from which it arose has long faded and only its memory continues to echo within us, thrilling us even as it makes us mourn its loss.

Resnais’s first wife was Florence Malraux, daughter of writer and statesman Andre Malraux. His second wife was actress Sabine Azema, who starred in all his later films, including the charmingly surreal 2009 comedy “Wild Grass.” And if I began with a memory, I’ll end with one as well. I saw “Last Year at Marienbad” when it was shown at the Armon David Cinema in Tel Aviv, which has been gone for some time now. The movie theater was nearly empty. I sat in the balcony, and aside from me, sitting in the first row, were some veteran Habima actors: Rovina, Finkel, Meskin and others. I thought it was wonderful that they’d come to see the movie and I imagine that if Resnais were aware of this moment in my film-going life, he would appreciate it too, and understand why the memory of it is etched just as deeply in me as the artificial vistas of the movie and the marvelous face of its star, actress Delphine Seyrig.

Director Alain Resnais.Credit: AFP
Director Alain Resnais and French actress Olga-Georges Picot in 1968 Cannes film festival.Credit: AFP
Director Alain Resnais.Credit: AFP