In the book Alain Resnais, James Monaco seeks to demystify the prevalent notion of the filmmaker’s body of work as being purely “intellectual”, arguing that the perceived inscrutability of his films stems more as a result of the absence of familiar, accessible emotional “codes” rather than his realization of abstruse intellectualism. To this end, Monaco chronologically examines the evolution of Resnais’ films within the context of the filmmaker’s own personal experiences, preoccupations, and their interrelation with contemporary history in order to present an effective examination of the logical precision, visual economy, intelligence, playfulness, and vivid imagination (the author notes that Resnais cultivated his sense of montage from a childhood fascination with comic books) that is innately embodied in his films.
Resnais’ early success came with the short film, Van Gogh, in which he sought to capture the “interior world of an artist” through photography – creating what Jean-Luc Godard describes as “blind, trembling pans” – that reflected the bold and erratic brushstrokes of a Van Gogh painting. The success of the film would lead to two more short films on art subjects, Gaughin and Guernica. Monaco further cites Gaston Bounoure’s proposition that Resnais’ short films are essentially studies of his later, feature films: Guernica and La Guerre est finie (Spain), Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour (World War II), Les Statues meurent aussi and Muriel (African versus French culture), Toute la mémoire du monde and Last Year at Marienbad (architectural memories), Le Chant du Styrène and Je t’aime, je t’aime (abstract structural studies).
Resnais’ feature film Hiroshima mon amour began auspiciously as a commission to create a short documentary on the atomic bomb. Working closely with novelist Marguerite Duras, the concept for the film emerged from the paradoxical position of having to realize an impossible task – to film what was essentially unfilmable – to create a “false documentary”. As a result, Resnais and Duras resolved to circumnavigate the inherent paradox by merging the disparate ideas through sequencing and montage, creating a film that is both intimate and historically epic, personal and representational (the characters known only as archetypal He/She).
Monaco presents Last Year at Marienbad as an exercise in eschewing the formulaic structures of decoupage classique narrative that visually explores the combinations and permutations of a hermetic, self-contained logical (or perhaps, mathematical) puzzle. As in Hiroshima mon amour, Resnais creates archetypal characters (in this case, A/X/M) who play out the game of seduction as a high stakes game of strategy.
Not coincidentally, Muriel marks Resnais’ first ascription of character names, with the subject of the title serving as a broader representation of a character’s traumatic past. Weaving familiar themes of (haunted) memory, perception, and guilt, the film’s fragmentation serves a reflection of failed love, regret, and moral responsibility. This more “personal” approach (and consequently, more emotionally accessible) would also serve as the basis for La Guerre est finie (albeit, more linear in narrative) and Je t’aime, je t’aime.
Monaco also devotes a chapter in the book to Resnais’ unrealized projects, the “nonfilms” that provide a different, and perhaps more importantly, an accessible dimension to the filmmaker’s reputation. Among these were: The Adventures of Harry Dickson, an adaptation of the Jean Ray pulp comic serial from the 1920s (to which he paid homage in Toute la mémoire du monde), a collaboration with editor and translator Richard Seaver on the Marquis de Sade, a collaboration with Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee entitled The Monster Maker (and a second, also unrealized project called The Inmates), and a documentary on 1920s-1930s fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft. Although varied in theme and envisioned format, these nonfilms further serve to illustrate Resnais’ penchant for novel storytelling and imagination, as well as his egalitarian view of high and pop art that refutes the general perception of his films as cold, technical exercises in impenetrable intellectualism.
Acquarello, 2004 [reprinted]