Alain Resnais Essay - Critical Essays

Resnais, Alain


Alain Resnais 1922–

French director and actor.

A foremost filmmaker of the French New Wave, Resnais includes comic strips, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jerry Lewis among his influences. Fascinated with capturing the disjointed, yet fluid quality of time and memory, Resnais characteristically uses a non-narrative style and long tracking shots in his films.

Before directing, Resnais studied acting and editing at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris. His documentary experience commenced with several art films, Van Gogh, Guernica, and Gauguin, followed by a film on Nazi concentration camps, Nuit et Brouillard. Other short documentaries include studies of the plastics industry and the Bibliothèque Nationale. Resnais has often opted for collaboration with well-established writers. This, along with his taste for experimentation, formed the groundwork for his first feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour written by Marguerite Duras.

In L'Année dernière à Marienbad written with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Resnais shuns traditional plot in favor of focusing on psychological themes. This film is considered a milestone in the cinematic world. Jean de Baroncelli, called it the first cubist film, comparing it to Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. Marienbad received limited popular acclaim, however, until it won the Great Golden Lion of the Venice Film Festival.

In La Guerre est Finie, Resnais sought to depict political reality. In addition, it was his first film concerning itself with a primary male character and the fusion of political and romantic lifestyles. Je t'aime je t'aime, on the other hand, represents a step into the science fiction world, telling the story of a man who must live his life twice. While examining the concept of time here, Resnais also had the opportunity to work with double imagery as a new form of narrative. Providence is his only attempt at comedy. However, Providence displays a strong Brechtian influence as well, and is generally considered to be Resnais's attempt to rediscover himself artistically.

Resnais's influence in the cinematic world has been chiefly noted of late in the new German cinema, whose exponents emulate his innovative forms of narrative. Though he is widely admired, he is not directly imitated; John Francis Kreidl said of Resnais, "There is no Resnaismania; he has no students because he is too difficult to copy; but he has become a sourcebook for the future."

Noel Burch

Though less ambitious, on the face of it, than Toute la Mémoire du Monde, Resnais's most recent short, Le Chant du Styrène … is perhaps even more brilliantly perfect. I say less ambitious because, in a sense, "it has all been done before": le styrène is a type of plastic—polystyrene. But rather than an industrial documentary, the film is a synthesis of visual abstraction and verbal lyricism, and as such it has probably never been equalled since the heyday of British documentary. (p. 59)

Alain Resnais and his cameraman, Sacha Vierny …, have performed a veritable tour de force in "industrial" camera-work. The acid contrast between candy-colored ribbons, pellets, and sheets of plastic as they pass through the gamut of presses and conveyor belts and the steely greys and browns of the machinery itself, is more than simply striking: it serves to create a perfectly coherent abstract universe, in which the sudden appearance of a line of workers shuffling oddly into the factory toward the end of the film—practically the only shot in which the "natural" spectrum is given full play—produces the shock of a rude awakening, as it recalls the irksome presence of mere humanity on the edge of this mechanical fairy-land….

The most important element of synthesis in the film is the relationship between the metric structure of [the verse of the author, Raymond Queneau] and the relaxed rhythm with which Vierny's startling images are made to succeed one another. (p. 60)

Finally, as Queneau leads us farther and farther back towards the sources of polystyrene—coal, petroleum, etc.—he seems suddenly aware that there is no reason why this account should ever stop, and with a few speculative verses on the prehistoric origins of coal and petroleum he decides, still without breaking the meter, that further investigation is better left "à d'autres documentaires," and this provocative little masterpiece just seems to stop … on a close-up of the seething jade-green sea. (p. 61)

Noel Burch, "Four Recent French Documentaries," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1959 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XIII, No. 1, Fall, 1959, pp. 56-61.∗

A. H. Weiler

If Alain Resnais, producer-director of "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," may be classified a member of the French "new wave," then he also must be listed as riding its crest. For his delicately wrought drama … is a complex yet compelling tour de force—as a patent plea for peace and the abolition of atomic warfare; as a poetic evocation of love lost and momentarily found, and as a curiously intricate but intriguing montage of thinking on several planes in Proustian style.

Although it presents, on occasion, a baffling repetition of words and ideas, much like vaguely recurring dreams, it, nevertheless, leaves the impression of a careful coalescence of art and craftsmanship.

With the assistance of Marguerite Duras, one of France's leading symbolic novelists …, M. Resnais is not merely concerned with the physical aspects of a short (two-day) affair between a Gallic actress, in Hiroshima to make a film, and a Japanese architect. He also explores the meanings of war, the woman's first love and the interchange of thoughts as they emerge during the brief but supercharged romantic interlude.

A viewer, it must be stated at the outset, needs patience in order to appreciate the slow but calculated evolvement of the various levels of the film's drama…. Neither M. Resnais nor Mlle. Duras are direct in their approach….

There is no doubt now that M. Resnais has chosen his proper metier. As a director who set himself an extremely difficult task, he expertly sustains the fragile moods of his theme most of the way. He also illustrates a rare expertise in his ability to show flashbacks….

If "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" is any yardstick, M. Resnais seems to have assured himself a niche in the feature-film field, too.

A. H. Weiler, "'Hiroshima, Mon Amour'," in The New York Times (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 17, 1960, p. 43.

Norman N. Holland

A brilliant, trying picture, at once sensitive and blunt, tender and savage, fleshy and spiritual, pacifist and politically realistic, [Hiroshima, Mon Amour] has something for everybody. For the film historian, not only does it provide another item to flesh out that increasingly meaningless label, nouvelle vague; it also uses some important new techniques of flashback. For the film critic, it is just a fine and meaningful film, to borrow a Bergman title, a lesson in love.

Hiroshima shows us a Frenchwoman and a Japanese having an impromptu affair in that city, which she tells us "was made for love." As they embrace, she drily and monotonously reconstructs from her tours of the city the world-wide horror of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and thereafter; later, she recalls as though on an analytic couch her personal horror—the French killing her German lover in the brisk process of liberation and her subsequent shames and sufferings….

[The] complexity of Resnais' technique rules out the possibility he is dealing with anything so banal as a study in nationalities. (p. 593)

In joining the old love affair, the new one, and the bombing, Resnais insists on the essential sameness of human experience, specifically the bombing and the "liberation," love and war. Shots of her shorn head match shots of Japanese women pulling out their radiated hair after the bomb. They crawl out of ruins and cellars as she had done with her German lover. The lighting of her basement prison is the soot of Hiroshima. "Deform me, deform me," she cries to her new lover, "You destroy me—you are good for me." This sameness is implicit in the very technique of telling about the bombing and the German lover in the setting of the later love affair which fuses both episodes, Resnais' technique of unexplained flashbacks....

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Penelope Houston

[L'Année Dernière à Marienbad] is a study in persuasion, and one which involves the audience as much as the people on the screen; and it is a work in which the technique and the action are quite literally fused. If it were not told in this particular way, the film would not exist….

[All] it can declare is itself—or, rather, the invitation to experience it contains.

L'Année Dernière opens, like Hiroshima mon Amour, with a sustained and elaborate introductory passage; in Hiroshima Resnais called it the 'opera'—here it is certainly not less than the overture. The music behind the credits fades, and before the last names come up on the screen a voice is heard, impersonal, grave, and at first very quiet. The voice becomes clearer as the first images appear: the long corridors of a big hotel, empty of people but suggesting a weight of habitation in their rich, arrogant decoration. Incantatory, the voice continues: "Once again I walk, once again, along these corridors, across these salons, these galleries, in this edifice from another century, this huge, luxurious, baroque hotel …" Organ music drowns the voice, then it returns, then the music rises over it again. The camera tracks slowly, inevitably, hovers over a theatre poster, a print of a formal garden, a row of numbered doors, moves down corridors, across baroque ceilings, gives such crystalline clarity to a section of moulding that it looks like a glistening bunch of fruit waiting to be picked. Then people: an audience for a play, gathered in a great salon, motionless and abstracted as they sit on their little gilt chairs and watch the stage. The voice of the actor on the stage takes over, as it were, from the narrator, "Voilà maintenant," says the actress, "Je suis à vous." Curtain.

The opening is entirely hypnotic. Like the beginning of a fairy tale, it draws us into an alien world, gives us no chance to get our bearings, hints at clues which may or may not turn out to have meaning. (p. 26)

The stranger's strength is in the sheer pressure of will: he wants it to be so; it will be so; it is so. Did they know each other, were they in...

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Bosley Crowther

Be prepared for an experience such as you've never had from watching a film when you sit down to look at Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad."…

It may grip you with a strange enchantment, it may twist your wits into a snarl, it may leave your mind and senses toddling vaguely in the regions in between. But this we can reasonably promise: when you stagger away from it, you will feel you have delighted in (or suffered) a unique and intense experience.

And that, it appears, is precisely what M. Resnais means you to feel—the extreme and abnormal stimulation of a complete cinematic experience…. This is no lucid exposition of human behavior in terms of conventional dramatic...

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Wolfgang A. Luchting

[The structure of Hiroshima Mon Amour (HMA) is based on Resnais' concepts of time. The film not only deals with exterior time (the actual length of the film) but interior time (the time of the central action we see). Within Resnais' use of interior time, the series of dramatic entities have meaning contingent on the sequence in which they are presented. Each sequence of happenings might be called a specific time, a fraction of the interior one. They compose the continuum of action, the story of the film.]

These specific times, the circumstantial components of the interior continuum, are in HMA subdivided into two categories:

(a) One...

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Susan Sontag

Muriel is the most difficult, by far, of Resnais' three feature films, but it is clearly drawn from the same repertoire of themes as the first two. (p. 23)

The reason Muriel is difficult is because it attempts to do both what Hiroshima and what Marienbad did. It attempts to deal with substantive issues—war guilt over Algeria, the OAS, the racism of the colons—even as Hiroshima dealt with the bomb, pacifism, and collaboration. But it also, like burden of this double intention—to be both concrete and abstract—doubles the technical virtuosity and complexity of the film….

Unlike Hiroshima Mon Amour and L'Année Dernière à...

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John Russell Taylor

[It was] in the field of short films that Resnais embarked on the experiment which has continued throughout his subsequent career and which makes him of particular interest to us now: the collaboration on equal terms with distinguished figures from the literary world. First, in Nuit et Brouillard, his documentary about concentration camps, it was Jean Cayrol. Then for Le Chant du Styrène, a commissioned piece about the manufacture of the plastic polystyrene, Raymond Queneau was called on for a characteristic punning verse commentary. In Resnais's first feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour, the original screenplay was by the novelist Marguerite Duras; in his second, L'Année Dernière à Marienbad,...

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Andrew Sarris

[In La Guerre est finie, we] are no longer concerned with the pretentious counterpoint of Love and the Bomb, Past and Present, Illusion and Reality, Society and the Individual, etc. We are obsessed instead with the doubts of Diego, the fears of Diego, the hopes of Diego, the instincts of Diego, even the fantasies of Diego….

For Resnais, it is enough to celebrate remembrance and mourn forgetfulness as fragments of personality and politics disintegrate in the void of time…. Cinema, like life, is a process of creating memories for the future. Resnais has always drawn on the past without paying for the future. His cinema has been hauntingly beautiful if dramatically improvident in its...

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Richard Schickel

La Guerre Est Finie is an exciting movie on two counts. It is, I think, the most successful representation on film we have had so far of the archetypal political drama of our time, in which a man's psychological need to make ideological commitments wars with the disillusionment such commitments must inevitably bring. It is also the first truly well proportioned—and therefore the first truly satisfying—feature we have had from director Alain Resnais….

[In] La Guerre Est Finie, story, style and symbols are much more carefully balanced [than in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad]. Jorge Semprun's script is a model of intelligent character and thematic...

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Roy Armes

In all his film work Resnais constantly searches for new forms: "I want to make films that are experiments. All experiments are interesting." This implies a refusal of anything that seems like a mere repetition, yet despite this Resnais's work does have a unity. On the surface his short films form a heterogeneous agglomeration: films on art and the Spanish Civil War, negro culture, the concentration camps and the French national library, the prevention of accidents and the manufacture of polystyrene…. Resnais evolves his method of collaboration, lays down the basis of his style and clarifies his personal attitude to the issues raised. Above all the films are linked by the seriousness of mind with which each...

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Richard M. Blumenberg

Last Year at Marienbad is a useful example of a film which attempts to show that cinema is able to describe psychological drama. The more detailed the description, the more "scientific" the forms; the more "scientific" the forms, the more abstracted from their environment the objects become. Resnais' documentary style (for example, long traveling shots) appears to work in this film visually to synthesize the "felt" with the "seen" object or objects. (p. 40)

Last Year at Marienbad occupies an important place in the history of narrative film, that it was a film that had to be made, and that—once done—new ideas about the possibilities of cinema can arise from a critical viewing of the...

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Gordon Gow

With Resnais and his varied followers, the need for rationalised explanation has been modified, and audiences have come to accept the loose ends which are found in modern films as frequently (or almost) as they exist in real life.

This is very much the case in Je t'aime, je t'aime. One can see, from the lucid opening phases, that the 'story' is about a man named Claude who has attempted suicide and is discharged from hospital in very poor shape emotionally….

Far from the stylised coolness of Marienbad, yet nowhere near the human warmth of Hiroshima and Muriel, this 1968 collaboration between Resnais and the writer Jacques Sternberg hardly succeeds at...

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James Monaco

[The] romantic commerciality of Stavisky … is only emulsion deep. Like most of Resnais' previous films, this one is subtly deceptive….

Stavisky … succeeds magnificently (as I've already suggested) as commodity: as a romantic evocation of the lost worlds of the twenties and thirties, entre deux guerres, it clearly out-Gatsbies [Jack Clayton's film version of The Great Gatsby]….

[The] parallel with Gatsby extends deeper than their evident values as commodities in the film marketplace, for [Jorge] Semprun's script manages to catch some of the same mythic power which has made the novel a masterpiece (and which entirely eluded Jack Clayton's film)....

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Peter Harcourt

Although the translucency of form in La Guerre est finie appeared to mark a new departure, the film still had much in common with Resnais's previous features. Central to the film is still the struggle on the part of Diego to come to grips with his own past. Related to this, in a way much like Last Year At Marienbad, Diego seems caught in a pattern of repetition….

Diego's past, however, and this sense of repetition, are not simply matters of personal conjecture about the validity of some lost and private experience. They involve a public dimension as well….

In La Guerre est finie, however, for the first time in his career, Resnais's two main characters...

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Frederick Busi

In his latest film Stavisky Alain Resnais attempts to handle the peculiar climate of France during the 1930s, the years that paved the way for Laval and Pétain to come to power. For the Frenchman with a memory mention of the name Stavisky conjures up images of the worst civil disorders his country experienced since the Paris Commune of 1871. He would recall a government discredited by corruption and coverups, a country set adrift, demoralized by the great depression, domestic hopelessness and also mesmerized by the rise of Hitler.

Little of … political history is depicted in Resnais' "Stavisky." It could have been the ideal topic for a historical treatment but Resnais, despite the political...

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Judith Crist

With varying success, Resnais has proved himself among the most adventurous of film artists, and certainly his present concept confirms it. Unfortunately, he has chosen as his collaborator for [Providence, an] exploration of what might best be termed a creative nightmare, David Mercer, the British playwright who last gave the screen Morgan!, based on his own play. In his first "original" screenplay, Mercer proves himself suffering major indigestion with the dialogue styles of Wilde, Coward, and Pinter; and it is indeed the English language itself … that is the stumbling block….

It is Resnais's vision that holds the attention: the suggestion and shadow of environment, the lurking...

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John Francis Kreidl

Stavisky is the beginning film of Resnais' second period—a period forced into being by financial problems rather than artistic intent. It is his Touch of Evil, not in the sense of the closed structure of Orson Welles' film, but in the nature of its handling: like Welles', it suggests a "comeback," a nervous desire to make good and regain public attention. (pp. 172-73)

Stavisky makes perfectly clear that Resnais' love of comics is not "slumming" but one facet of his purism in style, a purism that can only allow itself to take ideas and building blocks from high art and from simplicity, and not from middlebrow culture or masscult love of one-dimensionality….


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William F. Van Wert

[Providence] is a meta-film, a film about the making of films, a work of art about the fabricating of art works…. It is a film dependent more upon the mechanics of the medium than upon any simple mimesis….

Because a meta-film implies a simultaneous observation of the world and a meditation on itself, there is an unspoken tension, never resolved, within the work. Or, if resolved, it is only because the two functions have converged. The final scene of Providence is the only 'pure' scene in the film. We meet the real offspring of Clive Langham …, famous writer, liberated for the first time from his creative imagination. That liberation also implies the old man's death. The release of...

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Andrew Sarris

Alain Resnais's Mon Oncle d'Amerique may be the funniest movie about the horrors of working since Charles Chaplin's Modern Times. I know this sounds strange, because Resnais's work never struck anyone as intentionally funny; his films have evoked, instead, a few giggles over the years for what has been alleged to be his failed seriousness or lame whimsy….

The invidious critical catchword "didactic" will probably haunt the film for a long time, particularly in the unusually risky passages in which the characters reenact some of their scenes with the heads of white rats superimposed on their bourgeois-clad bodies. A more felicitous supplementary strategy is to identify each of the...

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