Slow, awesome, distant and personal images fill the cinema of Alain Resnais. His films concern the unreliability of memory and the sadness that comes with the loss of the past. In time, past and present, in remembering and forgetting, everyone feels a heartache.
In April and May, the Melbourne Cinémathèque will screen six features as part of their retrospective tribute to Alain Resnais. The exemplar of French filmmaking is still working today (his most recent film, Wild Grass, released in 2009), but this season will focus on the director’s earlier works, made in a time when the world was having troubles of a different kind. A key member of what was dubbed the “Left Bank Group” of filmmakers, including Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy, and Chris Marker (all of whom have been featured at the Cinémathèque in recent years), Resnais was also at the forefront of another seminal moment of French cinema, the French New Wave. Amongst such contemporaries as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Resnais is an unforgettable master in the French landscape and an important precursor to modern cinema.
Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais’ first feature released in 1959, opens with images of a loving couple in intimate embrace. Their bodies juxtaposed with images of Hiroshima landscape, Resnais brings the spectator out of the temporal space of the film, and into a time from its past. While physically connected, they doubt each other’s memories and it is only through images of history that the audience is directed to the truth. These disjunctive recollections, where spaces are depicted as empty, sparse, bare and impersonal, highlight how memories are entirely personal impressions that can, painfully, be removed from experience. Using these images—are they flashbacks or facets of imagination?—Resnais ties in the concept that the cinema can legitimately become an experience.
His cinema is slow, measured, and always passionate. Films are marked by long takes and tracking shots, long shots and abstract close ups. They are made with a haunting stillness and strange silences. We can be certain that no dialogue will be a waste of breath.
Temporal disjunction as a key element is explored throughout Resnais’ films, and is presented in a dignified cinematic form that allows for an affective connection to film. Resnais broaches a subject which is surely familiar to all of us; the inability to thoroughly repress memories of pain. The present always relates to the past; but in Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) the two are literally indistinguishable. This rarely screened cinematic treat, perhaps the most obscure of the season, screens on the same night as his most successful film outside of France, Stavisky… (1974). Along with La Guerre Est Finie (1966), these films express another of Resnais’ raisons d’être; a poignant sadness toward the state of revolutionary politics.
The final night of the season, in bittersweet farewell to Resnais, are his second and third features which are also two of his most temporally discrete. Last Year At Marienbad (1961) gained momentum for Resnais, winning international awards and puzzling critics and audiences with its imaginative, dislocated temporal organisation. Like Hiroshima Mon Amour, it had to be screened out of competition at Cannes, but ended up being awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Shot on location at several grand French châteaux, Resnais emphasises the ambiguity of subjectivity, and again, confirms the way insecurities can translate from the present into the past, and vice versa. This is an incredible film, and as Resnais haunts his characters with memories from their past lives, Marienbad becomes as stunningly hypnotic as it is ambiguous. Muriel, ou le temps d’un retour (1963), which deals with the relationship of a family in the aftermath of the Algerian war, is Resnais’ first feature length colour film, and takes advantage of this by making vivid colours an occasional, and very memorable, occurrence. The discordance between the memories of two French survivors, twenty years after they had an affair, continues the theme of repression and denial in painful memories.
The cinema of Resnais is always elegant and often elegiac. The men are handsome and the women consistently beautiful. All of the features screened in this retrospective were made after Resnais had established his talent at documentary cinema. In addition to several shorts which will be featured at the Melbourne Cinémathèque, he made Night and Fog (1955), telling a story of the Holocaust over images of abandoned concentration camps. The austerity of colour in Night and Fog is a just and delicate recognition of the horrors of war, and a cautious pleading against any further. Perhaps, all of this can be attributed to the encouragement he received with the success of his very first 35mm short Van Gogh, which won him an Academy Award in 1948. More than sixty years later, Melbourne is very privileged to be presented with this collection of his works. In response to a line spoken by Emmanuelle Riva’s character in Hiroshima Mon Amour—“forgetting will begin with our eyes”—see Alain Resnais on the big screen and he won’t be forgotten.