Alain Resnais Noel Burch - Essay

Noel Burch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗