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The persistence of time would surface in much of Resnais's work of the subsequent five decades, in the astonishing now-and-then Auschwitz juxtapositions of his 1955 short Night and Fog (the first major film about the Holocaust and still one of the most affecting), in the non-linear loop-de-loops of Je t'aime, je t'aime, and in the compression of simultaneously occurring events of Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour. The conditional nature of memory, both personal and historical, has been another career-spanning preoccupation, though Resnais himself bristles a bit at the "memory" label. "I prefer to say 'the imaginary,' " he says. "All our lives, we live with the memory of a sad experience, or a pleasant one, and, thanks to those memories, we try to avoid other sad experiences and try to repeat pleasant ones. But we don't remember things exactly as they happened, thanks to the chemical processes of the brain. A memory that's too short doesn't suffice; with the imaginary, one can retain everything."

If one were to summarize Resnais's incredibly diverse filmography in a single statement, it might be an inversion of the architectural maxim that form should follow function. For Resnais, form is paramount: "I always have the idea that, if there's a precise form, you will get the emotion of the spectator—the emotion and the interest," he says, and it's this concern that underlies his most seemingly disparate work, from the visceral "pure cinema" of his early films to the deliberate artifice of his more recent play adaptations. It has also led some to accuse him of being overly cerebral and distant, including Pauline Kael's charge (in a review of 1977's Providence) that "most of the giants of film haven't been able to find the form for everything they've got in their heads; Resnais seems to have nothing but form in his."

But while Resnais's films can seem cool to the touch, those implacable surfaces more often than not belie churning currents of complex human emotion, from the shell-shocked survivors of Hiroshima mon amour to the hopeless romantics of Wild Grass. "It's really a matter of life imitating art instead of the opposite—the way we often feel the emotions of everyday life as if they had already registered on the screen," he says. "When everyday life resembles cinema, it interests me more than when I see a documentary film. If you make a film very close to reality, you don't have to give it a form. I feel that when there is a form, I come closer in fact to the reality of life."

Wild Grass plays at the New York Film Festival opening night, September 25.

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