Is it mere serendipity that the Alain Resnais retro at Lincoln Center follows hard on the heels of the release of Raul Ruiz’s ambitious Proust chronicle? Nearly all of Resnais’s films could be titled Time Regained—from early documentary shorts to late mature features, the director’s best work seems to have been triggered by the Proustian process of associative memory.
Resnais has often been lumped with the New Wave, although he can be more appropriately seen as part of the “Left Bank Group” with Chris Marker and Agnes Varda, directors of a more experimental bent, more intensely concerned with politics than most of the Cahiers clan. He belongs to the first generation of filmmakers who came of age in the darkened precincts of the Cinémathèque Française, for whom the cinema’s past was seriously taken into account. His major influences were the dreamlike silent thrillers of Louis Feuillade and the work of Marcel L’Herbier, a prominent member of the first French avant-garde.
Resnais’s debut feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), scripted by Marguerite Duras, remains a landmark of modernism in cinema. This seminal film, in which a French actress’s affair with a Japanese architect evokes memories of her earlier love for a German soldier in wartime France, opened new perspectives for subjective narration. Resnais negates the traditional film treatment of the past, using fast cuts without resorting to dissolves and fades, and associative editing to set images of Nevers and Hiroshima in counterpoint. The miracle of Hiroshima was that it dismantled the conventional order of cinema, but did so while telling a moving and understandable story.
Such is hardly the case with Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Resnais’s visually stunning but listless and arty second feature, written by key nouveau roman figure Alain Robbe-Grillet. Like Hiroshima, it centers on a triangular relationship—a woman, her pursuing lover, and a man who may be her husband. The minimal plot concerns the lover’s attempts to convince the woman that they met and had an affair the previous year—and to leave with him. The setting is a baroque château converted into a luxury hotel. Rarely discussed as a political film, Marienbad is nonetheless an implicit denunciation of bourgeois values. It appears to be the first film totally built on the concept of indeterminacy—that the viewer was expected to collaborate in creating its meaning became evident with the manifold press and public reactions. The film’s tone may be attributable to the fact that writer and director disagree about what actually did happen in the story; according to Resnais, the lovers had met before, while Robbe-Grillet has always maintained that they had not.
A vampish young clotheshorse in Marienbad, Delphine Seyrig is almost unrecognizable in Resnais’s bold and complex third feature, Muriel (1963), as a dowdy middle-aged widow attempting to revive an old love affair and incapable of living in the present. The double-stranded narrative (screenplay by poet and novelist Jean Cayrol) also involves her stepson, a veteran of the Algerian war tormented by his participation in the torture and death of a young Arab girl and obsessed with atonement. The director’s masterpiece, Muriel is one of the rare French films to concern itself with the war crimes associated with the Algerian conflict. The setting is Boulogne, a town mostly destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in an ugly modern style. Resnais’s camera leapfrogs brilliantly: Day and night shots of the same locations are alternated, evoking a ravaged city where everything and everyone seems in a state of flux.
Providence (1977), the director’s first English-language picture, is based on a screenplay by David Mercer that recounts the fantasies of a dying novelist. It’s basically a gloss on the creative process itself—about a writer cannibalizing reality for imaginative ends, using the people he knows as raw material. Always memorable on stage and hardly ever well-utilized on screen, John Gielgud is the central character, Clive Langham (his best film role); savoring every syllable, he has a marvelous time with the scatological musings of this insufferable old scribbler.
The Reade’s retro includes the New York premieres of several docs and three features, I Want to Go Home (1986) and Smoking and No Smoking (1993). The latter two, based on a stage cycle by Alan Ayckbourn, are set in a small town in Yorkshire, with all the characters—an alcoholic headmaster, his insecure wife, and their entourage—played by Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi. There are at least half a dozen stories, with twice as many potential conclusions—at crucial junctures the plot explores parallel universes inhabited by the same characters. This jeu d’esprit is charming up to a point, but at nearly five hours for the pair, it’s a long sit. As for I Want to Go Home, a satirical comedy written by Jules Feiffer about an American cartoonist in Paris, it’s a collector’s item of sorts—simply put, the most witless movie ever made by a great director.