Guernica, 1950. On April 27, 1937, in the midst of a grueling and increasingly brutal Spanish Civil War, the ancient Basque town of Guernica was subjected to an extended duration bombardment campaign by German forces in an unrelenting aerial campaign designed to demoralize the collective psyche of the Basque nation and to also show camaraderie (and military alliance) with the nationalists under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Composed of a series of fractured, compartmentalized images that traces the evolution of the paintings and sculptures of cubist artist Pablo Picasso from 1906 to 1937 (leading to his masterwork Guernica) set against an evocative narrative ode written by French lyrical poet Paul Éluard and recited in an off-screen performance reading by Jacques Pruvost and María Casarès, Guernica is a thoughtful and passionate meditation on barbarism, warfare, and human resilience. Alain Resnais incorporates ingenious, rapid cut editing strategies and fragmented, subset images that not only visually integrate the principles of cubism in cinematic form, but moreover, reinforce the film’s overarching, thematic structure of multifacetedness that subtly – but inescapably – reflect on Spain’s (then) continued struggle under fascism at the end of World War II: the superimposition of character portraits against the static image of a post-bombing Guernica (note the use of cross-fade that Resnais subsequently incorporates in the superimposed images of Diego and Marianne in La Guerre est finie); the focused, directed lighting and partial occlusion of images that intimately underscore the resulting psychological toll of the inhumane destruction; the platen overlay of portraits that are subjected to a (simulated) riddling of bullets in order to evoke the image of rampant, arbitrary gun-shed, violence, and chaos. In the end, it is this dimensionally complex and multifaceted depiction of war’s long-reaching and ineludible toll that is reflected in the film’s bittersweet and melancholic human poem, not to serve as an elegiac commemoration of a senseless tragedy, but as a solemn prayer for the deliverance of a persecuted, suffering people.
Night and Fog, 1955. There is a dual meaning behind the title of Alain Resnais’ eviscerating holocaust documentary, Night and Fog: a reference to the arrival of interned prisoners into concentration camps under the cloak of darkness, and the subconscious suppression of knowledge and culpability for the resulting horror of the committed atrocities. Arguably one of the finest documentaries ever captured on film, Night and Fog opens with the fluid, horizontal tracking of an idyllic, seemingly impressionistic, barren countryside. But this is no ordinary remote open field. It is 1955, and this is postwar Poland, the site: Auschwitz. Using highly unsettling, archival footage recorded during postwar liberation contrasted against the stillness of the modern-day landscape, Resnais creates a powerful, haunting chronicle of cruelty, dehumanization, and denial of personal responsibility. As in his subsequent feature film, Hiroshima mon amour, Night and Fog is an examination of repressed memory. However, unlike Hiroshima mon amour where actions have individual, emotional consequence, Night and Fog is a scathing indictment of the conscious, deliberate obscuration of truth – an oppressive truth with moral and universal repercussions. In 1955, ten years after the end of World War II, the deflection of accountability are reflected in the Nuremberg trials, a defiance of personal guilt tempered by cowardice, as the narrator (Jean Cayrol), a concentration camp survivor, asks the fundamental question: Who is responsible? Even today, at the turn of the century, it is still a relevant question that is met with uncomfortable silence.
Le Chant du Styrène, 1958. A prefacing passage by author Victor Hugo provides the overarching structure for Alain Resnais’ tongue-in-cheek meditation on the ingenious creation and infinite utility of ductile and formable thermoplastics in Le Chant du Styrène: “Man is served by blind matter. He thinks, he searches, he creates. With his living breath the seeds of nature tremble as a forest rustles in the wind.” Transforming Hugo’s prefiguring ideas of nature and creation into a modern age industrial ode articulated in romantic couplet by an off-screen narrator (Pierre Dux), the film continues its effervescent, seriocomic tone with a surreal and idiosyncratic image of pseudo-genesis in an indelible montage opening sequence that subversively evokes the multilayered tone and familiar (iambic pentameter) meter of Romantic poet John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn – the images of animated, time-lapse photography of boldly colored plastic objects sprouting like inorganic seeds that have germinated from the artificial bounds of a framing mat – that culminates in a whimsically dramatic, highly stylized shot of a large, empty, red plastic bowl. Systematically tracing the origin of the morphing objects in linear regression from the extruded molds of a mechanized assembly line, to the synthesis of chemicals that produce the complex, polymeric structure of styrene through a precise and sinuous choreography of steel pipes, pressure vessels, and commercial tankers at a large, industrial plant, to the organic-based fossil fuels that are combusted to generate the derivatives and byproducts that serve as the basis for the elemental compound, the film serves as an insightful and multifaceted study in objective and filmic structure, form, and composition.
Commissioned by the Société Pechiney to illustrate the variety and versatility of their product, Le Chant du Styrène – a pun on the idea of the irresistibly entrancing, mythological Siren’s song – is a playful and deceptively facile, yet rigorously constructed and elegantly formalized exposition on creation, impartial (but engaged) observation, and the intertextuality of filmed images. Marking Resnais’ last short documentary before embarking on a career in (fictional) feature filmmaking, Le Chant du Styrène represents a stylistic convergence rather than transition from his non-fiction work, integrating the theorematic structure of logical argument and analytical deconstruction of his earlier documentaries (such as the theme of collective guilt and responsibility in Night and Fog) with the visual formalism, elaborate construction, and technical agility of his feature films (most notably in the fluid traveling shots through the baroque, architectural spaces of Last Year at Marienbad and Stavisky). It is interesting to note that the seemingly mundane and commercial subject of the film – plastic – also provides a behavioral and material correlation to a recurring Resnais theme: the malleable, inconcrete, and transformable properties of memory – an autonomic (or in the case of plastic, automated), repetitive, and adaptive process that is (literally) shaped by its external environment (note the commentary on organic sources in the manufacture of the synthetic product that also draws an implicit connection to the material’s history – and perhaps, residual memory of its organic ancestry – as an organism). It is this intrinsic nature of permanent, physical imprint that inevitably unlocks the subsequent structure of Resnais’ abstract narrative and temporally indeterminate logic puzzles: the plasticity of human memory.
Hiroshima mon amour, 1959. From the opening sequence of a lovers’ embrace shot in extreme close-up, intercut with footage of atomic bomb survivors, Alain Resnais creates an asynchronous narrative rhythm in Hiroshima mon amour. A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) filming an antiwar public service announcement in Hiroshima, has a brief, passionate affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). A vague dialogue between the two nameless lovers provides a glimpse into the loss and regret of their mutually suppressed, unspoken pasts: the actress recounts unsettling images of bomb casualties, as the architect refutes her testament, insisting that she cannot know Hiroshima. After parting to their separate ways for the day, the architect later visits the actress on location, and convinces her to have a drink with him. He is drawn to her melancholy, and seeks validation for their encounter – an intangible souvenir that transcends their short-lived, impossible relationship – an emotional connection. She tells him that Nevers is the home of her youth, a place that she no longer visits, and gradually begins to reveal the events surrounding the loss of her true love, a German soldier, during the final days of occupied France. They are kindred spirits, bound together by personal shame and guilt of survival, and an overwhelming sense that they can never go home again (as in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s White. It is through their affair that the memory of her beloved is reawakened. In essence, the architect is the catalyst: the receptive soul who guides her through the painful, introspective path that leads to closure.
Alain Resnais retains the radical narrative structure of Marguerite Duras’ screenplay, yet achieves a distinctly personal tome on war, guilt, and atonement in Hiroshima mon amour. Resnais’ incorporation of unstructured, elliptical chronology creates a sense of atemporality and perpetuity. The lovers emerge after their tryst from a hotel named New Hiroshima, reinforcing the theme of irretrievable history: figuratively, the lost, old Hiroshima that the actress has never (and cannot) known. The repeated dialogue, documentary footage of victims, antiwar protest banners, and flashbacks of Nevers, provide a seamless fusion of the past coexisting with the present. Moreover, the actress’ tangential narrative, recounting her nervous breakdown, and her interchanged references to the Japanese architect as her lost German lover, further dissolve the visual linearity of the flashback sequence. This results in a film that is chronologically obscure, a reflection of the toll of personal memories – of how the past subtly, but invariably, affects us – and forever alters our behavior. Hiroshima mon amour is a highly stylized, tightly interwoven tale of lost love, a uniquely realized story of collective conscience: of regret and survival, loss and reconstruction…of nations and people.
Last Year at Marienbad, 1961. Similar to Alain Resnais’ previous film Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad begins with a postulate of memory and perspective. A handsome stranger, X (Giorgio Albertazzi) encounters an alluring socialite, A (Delphine Seyrig) at a grand, baroque hotel and, captivated by her, attempts to convince the reluctant object of his desire that they have met before – that it was, in fact, precisely a year earlier at a luxury resort similar to Marienbad, perhaps, in Fredericksburg or Baden-Salsa. X explains that A was then unable (or unwilling) to separate from her enigmatic and forbidding lover (or husband), M (Sacha Pitoëff), and that she had agreed to meet X a year later at this pre-arranged destination – perhaps to test X’s romantic resolve, or to give herself time to wrest free from M’s icy control (a domination that he also exerts through seemingly un-winnable card or matchstick Nim games). X’s account seems persuasive, recalling specific (albeit, often contradictory) details of their brief dalliance at the ornate European hotel: a gravel path where she stumbles and breaks the heel of her shoe during a rendezvous in the impeccably manicured garden; a Greek statue of a man and a woman (whose formal pose was either a guiding or hindering one) on an overlooking terrace; A’s radiant expression as she clandestinely invites X into her room, seductively dressed in a mutable (white or black) feathered evening gown. And so the intriguing game of seduction unfolds in Marienbad, as the two ‘lovers’ recount a fractured tale of their perceived – and self-actualized – reality and unrealized love affair.
Written by nouveau roman (also known as ‘antinovel’ or ‘new novel’) author Alain Robbe-Grillet (whose own aspirations of filmmaking led to the formulation of an inflexibly detailed shooting script that Resnais, while remaining faithful to script, nevertheless managed to ascribe his own aesthetic imprint), Last Year at Marienbad is a sublimely tactile, exquisite, and hauntingly enigmatic composition on the interrelation of perception, consciousness, and reality. Resnais audaciously combines the experimental narrative structure of the French avant-garde literary movement that sought to blur the delineation between subjective and objective reality (and similarly, the linear progression of conventional storytelling) with the classical, dramatic staging of performance art (especially in the presentation of highly formalized, tableaux vivant-like ephemeral characters) to create a complex and idiosyncratic, yet captivating and thematically accessible story of unrequited love. Presenting an organic narrative through disjunctions of time, consciousness, and perspective, Resnais further reflects the fragmentation of temporal and spatial linearity through sinuous tracking shots through the chateau’s sensual, baroque interiors that curiously defy identification of location and relativity to other rooms – sleeping quarters, hallways, recreational lounges, pistol firing range, and even a theatrical stage seem intrinsically part of, yet strangely dissociated from, the disorienting estate. (Note the indelible image of people casting shadows on the gravel path juxtaposed against a parallel line of trees without cast shadows in the sculptured garden). In essence, the visual contradiction implies a contextual unreality or, more appropriately, a subjective reality to the film’s narrative: a manifestation of X’s point-of-view that interweaves memory, desire, logic, embellishment, and suggestion into a compelling (and self-serving) argument of intellectual seduction. By modulating and re-arranging the syntax of film language away from the familiar découpage classique narrative structure of traditional (usually Hollywood) cinema and towards a stylistic convergence of images, textures, sounds, and imagination, the film serves as a singular, audacious, and iconic exposition on the malleability of reality, time, existence, and memory.
Muriel, 1963. Muriel opens with a seemingly idiosyncratic series of fragmented images, as a client stands in the doorway of an antique dealer, Helene’s (Delphine Seyrig) apartment to provide specific details on her furniture request. Oddly, the client specifies that she does not want anything “old fashioned”. Helene is a widow, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her former lover, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien), whom she had not seen since the war. Reacting to young Bernard’s (Jean-Baptiste Thierree) disinterest, Helene remarks that Alphonse could be Bernard’s father. However, Bernard later explains to Alphonse’s lover, Francoise (Nita Klein), that Helene is his stepmother. Other incongruous patterns emerge. Bernard mentions that he is meeting a girl named Muriel later in the evening, but is elusive about their relationship. Despite Helene’s diligence in noting the arrival of Alphonse’s train, she encounters an empty train station. The evening walk from the train station is intercut with a montage of daylight images of the port town. Helene announces that dinner will consist of chicken and mushrooms, but Francoise comments in approval that Alphonse loves sausage and Italian salami. Moreover, during the course of dinner, Helene encourages Alphonse to have some more cabbage and fennel. Later in the evening, a man named Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval) arrives at the house to escort Helene to the casino, but Alphonse later infers that Helene left the house alone to meet Roland at the casino. Alphonse’s motives for the visit are equally ambiguous. He seems eager to rekindle his relationship with Helene, but brings Francoise to the trip, and seems resigned to the idea that their life before the war is irretrievably lost. Similarly, Bernard’s service in the Algerian war proves to be a painful, inescapable memory that resigns him to a life of isolation and profound guilt.
Alain Resnais creates a visual and thematic conundrum on the effects of war on the lives of three emotionally scarred survivors in Muriel. Using jarring jump cuts and frenetic montage sequences, Helene is literally surrounded by the past, as she uses the apartment to showcase and sell antique furniture. Alphonse, who has struggled to rebuild his life after the war, is unable to reconcile with their failed relationship, and returns to Helene in order to escape personal problems. Bernard, haunted by the memory of a nameless war casualty, sits in a dilapidated studio endlessly replaying military footage, struggling with his own personal demons. As in Francois Truffaut’s The Green Room, an unnatural, pervasive green hue creates a sense of unresolved longing and insurmountable loss. Muriel is a cinematically groundbreaking, cryptic, and endlessly fascinating labyrinthine puzzle on memory and altered perception – an honest, yet challenging portrait of isolating guilt and the tragedy of survival.
La Guerre est finie, 1966. A world-weary, career resistance operative and Spanish exile using the alias Diego Mora (Yves Montand) arrives at a customs checkpoint on the French-Spanish border on a quiet Easter Sunday en route to an unspecified assignment and begins to rehearse his cover story with the driver, a bookstore owner and revolution sympathizer named Jude (Dominique Rozan). A quick series of images depicting Diego in (necessarily) inconstant and varying stages of transit soon reveals that it is a trip that he has performed often, a familiarly evasive routine that seems banal and predictable, even as he is temporarily detained by the authorities on an apparently targeted traffic stop of similar vehicles. Brought in for an interview with the on-duty customs inspector (Michel Piccoli), the unfazed Diego – carrying the passport of a man named Sallanches whose biographical information he has exhaustively studied but has never personally met – provides meticulous details to his assumed identity in an impromptu, but well-orchestrated deception that is conveniently corroborated by a subsequent telephone call to the Sallanches’ apartment that confirms the information and results in his release. Concerned over the implications of the increased border security to their underground network operations, Diego attempts to warn a fellow operative of the risk, but soon finds that his seemingly impeccable attention to factual detail has failed him after arriving at an incorrect address – a mistake that proves to be the latest manifestation of Diego’s flagging acuity and uncertainty towards his life’s direction. As he seeks solace away from the emotional demands of his devoted mistress, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) by undertaking extended duration covert assignments and embarking on a meaningless affair with Sollanches’ activist daughter Nadine (Geneviève Bujold), Diego struggles with his own personal and ideological disillusionment through the empty rituals of his increasingly consuming and interminable vocation as his comrades prepare for an imminent mass strike across the border.
Scripted by Spanish novelist, Franco-era political exile, resistance fighter, and Buchenwald concentration camp survivor Jorge Semprún, the film is an intricately fluid and structurally complex, but elegantly facile and thoughtful exposition on alienation, intimacy, and radicalism. Alain Resnais breaks conventional narrative linearity by interweaving extensive flash-forward and flashback episodes into the film’s elliptical framework to create a pervasive atemporality and chronological ambiguity that reflects Diego’s sense of displacement and existential crisis. Resnais further modulates the film’s tempo by incorporating rapidly edited montages that visually convey the internal cognitive functions of memory, sentiment, and perception: the alternating images of four young women to represent Nadine that conveys Diego’s deductive thought process on the likely appearance of his assumed identity’s daughter; the intercutting series of anonymous apartment buildings and similarly decorated address plaques that illustrates his confusion on the actual residence of Madame Lopez (Marie Mergey); the fragmented shots of Diego and Nadine’s coupling that contrast with the slow paced, lingering medium shots of Marianne that innately reflects the diametrical nature of Diego’s relationships – the encounters with Nadine seem physical, confronting, and immediate while those with Marianne appear intimate, nurturing, and sensual. (Note Resnais’ allusive device of presenting mundane daily rituals through achronological narrative sequencing that is further expounded in his subsequent film, Je t’aime, Je t’aime). Eschewing the intrigue and exoticism of the film’s intrinsically political subtext, Resnais creates a sublime and emotionally lucid cautionary portrait of the consequence of emotional ambivalence, violent revolution, and the futile repetition of unlearned history.
Je t’aime, je t’aime, 1968. A group of scientists anxiously await word for a despondent, melancholic patient named Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) to regain consciousness at an unidentified hospital, where he is gradually recuperating from a gunshot wound resulting from an attempted suicide, in order to approach him on an ambiguous proposal to participate in a short duration human time travel experiment. Arriving at Crespel Research Center, Ridder is escorted on an introductory tour of the facility by the director Jan Rouffer (Van Doude) who brings him before a pair of laboratory glass belljars containing a control mouse ‘A’ and subject “pioneer” mouse ‘B’: the latter rodent having successfully (but unverifiably) undergone a one-minute temporal regression – the apparent durational limit of the experiment – at precisely 4:00 p.m. a day earlier. In an attempt to validate the results of the test run, Rouffer has turned to Ridder for verification, asking him to become the first human subject of their experiment and provide first-hand observations and corroborative biofeedback data under the presumption that his disregard for his own life would make him a suitable candidate willing to accept the risk for such an unprecedented (and uncertain) journey in exchange for reliving a life episode of his own choosing. Ridder has a specific moment in mind to relive for the occasion: emerging from the ocean on the Riviera a year earlier from an afternoon of snorkeling to the sight of his lover Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot) lazing on the shoreline. However, shortly after the start of the test, the scientists experience a malfunction in the release mechanism process of the voluptuously organic time travel apparatus, consequently trapping Ridder into an isolated world of his own fractured, infinitely repeating memories.
Realized from a five-year collaborative project with novelist Jean Sternberg, Je t’aime, je t’aime is a structurally complex, yet visually refined, emotionally cohesive, and lucid exposition on guilt, desire, longing, and regret. Through dissociative and achronological personal memories that contextually illustrate Ridder’s turbulent, long-term relationship with Catrine, his uninspiring desk job (and mediocre career success) in publishing, and ambiguous, interrelated events that foreshadow his attempted suicide, Alain Resnais captures the seemingly mundane rituals of everyday life – what the filmmaker describes as temps morts (literally, dead time) – that intrinsically define the essence of human existence. Recalling the interplay of role, identity, and memory of Resnais’ earlier films, Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad, the film is also an exploration of identification and existential validation. However, in contrast to the grandiosely formalist – and consequently, aesthetically artificial – and irresolvable logic puzzle of Last Year at Marienbad with which the film shares a similar asequential structure and dislocated (and overarchingly recursive) narrative, Ridder’s unremarkable life is presented in terse and abstract episodes that, although also eschewing narrative, inherently illustrate a complexity of form, experience, tactility, and emotional realism. In the end, it is the film’s organic ability to convey depth and texturality that elicits pathos and humanity for the deeply flawed, alienated, modern day tragic hero imprisoned by the eternal torment of his inescapable, haunted memories.
Stavisky, 1974. On an idyllic summer day in 1933, a lone car traverses around the bend of a narrow gravel road along the side of a hill, stopping at a scenic overlook alongside the deserted coastline as three unidentified, college-aged spectators anxiously follow the course of a sparsely occupied motorboat through a pair of binoculars as it heads towards shore. The young men then follow the occupants to a public assembly room of the local city hall of Cassis as chief inspector Gardet (Van Doude) subsequently identifies their curious object of surveillance as a political exile named Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Yves Peneau) – better known under the alias, Leon Trotsky – who has been allowed political asylum in France under the strict condition that he refrain from participating in domestic political activities. Following Gardet’s official debriefing of the reluctant exile, Trotsky is then led away on an escorted car to begin a new life as a displaced foreigner in the insular, bucolic town. The distanced and fragmentary images of Trosky’s motorcade passing through town is intercut with the seemingly tangential, parallel shot of a charismatic, impeccably dressed self-made businessman surnamed Stavisky (Jean-Paul Belmondo) – who goes by the name Serge Alexandre – as he rides an elevator down to the main lobby of the luxury hotel Claridge in order to meet with his advisor Albert Borelli (François Périer) and a genial aristocrat named Baron Jean Raoul (Charles Boyer). The elegant synchrony of the opening sequence establishes an early, implicit parallel and seemingly fated interconnection between the two expatriates beyond their common national and cultural ancestry (both were of Russian Jewish descent) and intriguing personalities. Using the morning meeting to impress the aging baron with a set of daily instructions for Borelli to execute a sequence of convoluted re-allocation of funds (that uncoincidentally evokes the transactional equivalent of a classic shell game) to stave off an impending financial crisis, Stavisky soon turns his attention to the baron’s initial impressions – and clandestine surveillance news – of his wife Arlette’s (Anny Duperey) latest affair with a polo player and armchair revolutionary named Montalvo (Roberto Bisacco) before heading out to visit a theatrical production that he has invested in to hold auditions for an unnamed play. However, evidence that Stavisky’s carefully cultivated persona as a bon vivant aristocrat and shrewd entrepreneur continues to erode under the weight of ongoing criminal investigations against accusations of bribery, corruption, elaborate fraud, and money laundering as an ambitious investigator named Bonny (Claude Rich) plants information on his criminal history through a yellow journalist (Michel Beaune) who is writing a series of exposés on his well-guarded, notorious past as a confidence man and petty thief (who used to steal the gold from patients’ teeth at his father’s dental practice) that have served to bolster credibility for the compounding police charges. Chronicling the final months of Stavisky’s life as he continues to court attention and publicity even as he alternately attempts to salvage his crumbling financial empire, plan his next swindle, and dodge authorities, the film evocatively captures the pulse of a rapidly (and irreversibly) changing sociopolitical landscape of Europe in the deceptive calm between the chaos of the two world wars.
Adapted from a screenplay by Jorge Semprún based on the notorious French financial scandal known as the Stavisky affair that culminated in the political disfavor (if not outright collapse) of the left wing coalition of the Third Republic, Stavisky is a voluptuous, exquisitely refined, and deceptively lyrical portrait of celebrity, opportunism, xenophobia, and scapegoating. Alain Resnais incorporates his familiar penchant for the photography of architecture, particularly in the framing of classical building elevations and ornate, baroque interiors of luxury hotels (note the animated fluidity of the extended street view traveling shot that would be similarly incorporated in Marguerite Duras’ subsequent film, India Song) that, not only reflect their intrinsic character as inanimate, but organic “personalities” (a malleable existence that transforms through human consciousness that is implied in James Monaco’s description of Last Year at Marienbad as an exposition on architectural memory), but more importantly, their underlying structure of columns, façades, buttresses, and rooftops that reflect the symbiotic interrelationship within the elements of construction (note the recurring image of triangular and pyramidal motifs throughout the film that also mirror the structural geometry of the architecture: Arlette’s pendant, her extramarital affair with Montalvo, a close-up of an ashtray during Stavisky’s final meeting with his advisers). Moreover, like the unwinnable Marienbad Nim logic puzzles, Stavisky’s existence and ultimate downfall are also games of manipulated outcome: his introductory financial shell game, Bonny’s frequent news leaks to receptive media outlets and evidence planting, Gardet’s restrictive conditions towards Trotsky’s asylum (and subsequent intrusive surveillance) that compel radicals to seek out the idealistic revolutionary in the quaint town. It is this confluence of rigid geometry and engineered disarticulation that inevitably defines the inconceivable, overreaching effects of the Stavisky affair: the uprooting of a culturally reinforcing element of symbolic wealth that collapses the weakened and vulnerable framework of an apathetic, ossified, and materialistic social (and national) structure.
Acquarello 2004-2004 [reprinted]