Alain Resnais’s last completed film, Life of Riley (2014), presents a group of aging friends who plan, hope, wish, dream, and scheme after they learn that one of their own is dying. The doomed man, George Riley, never shown onscreen, is enlisted to join an amateur theater production in the role of a dashing lover, ostensibly to occupy him; it quickly becomes evident, though, that the others have cast the charismatic fellow because they need him to play opposite them within the theater of daily life. The men pay homage to George’s enviable strength and courage, while the women plot how to escape with him for a country weekend.
The otherwise restless Kathryn (played by Sabine Azéma, the filmmaker’s wife) appears alone onscreen at one point, briefly breaking from drinking and gardening to talk about George’s appeal. She says that during their long-ago love affair, George “succeeded, as if with a magic trick, in slowing down time. He made it stand still. Everything bustled on around us but we were there, he and I, as if suspended in limbo.” She takes a breath soon afterward and returns to work. Private moments like hers occur with the other characters throughout this film in which, like so much of Resnais’s cinema, love acts as a kind of time capsule that people sneak away from other business to dig up, take a look at, and put more of themselves inside. Resnais’s characters come to seem both silly and poignant as they act out fantasies in ways that feel true to life.
Life of Riley won the Alfred Bauer Prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival for opening “new perspectives on cinematic art.” It was an appropriate award for the work of a 91-year-old filmmaker who died on Saturday after trying to develop new screenplays from his hospital bed, and who had been modestly seeking innovations in film form, with remarkably coherent and consistent results, for more than 60 years. Resnais worked at making films that would reflect the processes of human thought. He directed the creators involved in their immediately prominent elements — among these, highly self-aware acting, camerawork, editing, music, writing, and set design — to suggest evolving psychologies that he trusted viewers to follow.
The sets in Life of Riley, always filled with cheerful music, are outsized, colorful, flagrantly artificial homes for bourgeois folk who can’t stop performing; the snow-covered apartments and offices of Private Fears in Public Places (2006, and based, like Life of Riley, upon a play by British author Alan Ayckbourn) are filled with walls and curtains behind which we glimpse shy people afraid to reach out to each other; Last Year at Marienbad (1961, and beginning a weeklong theatrical run Friday at Lincoln Center in a restored 35mm print) moves through an ornate, seemingly endless countryside palace in tune to a man’s voice describing a romance to his perhaps former, perhaps future partner in detail.
The elegantly roaming camera’s exploration of space in Marienbad treats each room like a waking memory, and connects them to one another as though they were expressions of thought within a giant brain. The young man at the heart of the science fiction tale Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) is even hooked up inside a brain-shaped time machine, within which he hopscotches between past moments shared with a former partner. Resnais strove within a time-based medium to create art that broke with fixed notions of time.
He did so because he believed that the past was far from over; rather, it always unfolded in the present and affected the future. This position gave clear moral force to his early documentary collaborations with Chris Marker, Statues Also Die (1953), and Night and Fog (1955), which suggested (well before the French government was ready to admit) that colonialism and genocide were not bygone phenomena but ongoing problems. It would also complicate Resnais’s subsequent fiction films that, like the human experience of time, could never proceed in a straight line. Muriel (1963), for instance, uses sharp editing to fracture even seemingly conventional domestic scenes that involve characters who break apart and reassemble themselves each day, perhaps in response to lingering traumas — wars (both World War II and the French-Algerian War) as well as lost loves.
Resnais refused the claim that his films primarily explored memory, preferring to say that he explored the imaginary, which he saw as a much larger field of play within which memory could be included. His characters often treated life like a novel that they themselves could pen. John Gielgud’s forever-dying writer in Providence (1977) sits among the curled plants in his country home, acerbically narrating his son and daughter-in-law’s relations with each other and with their lovers, who appear before us in the present tense while the speaker’s words serve as accompaniment. Something similar happens in Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) with images of the doomed Second World War-era romance between a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and a German soldier that the woman, now an actress, narrates to her Japanese lover (Eiji Okada) years after the war ends. In both cases, we watch the creation of a fiction that is being made real through its truth to the storyteller.
Resnais’s protagonists often try to make a living out of creating the world in their images. Their ranks include artists (like the painter subjects of his several early documentary shorts, or the rival comic book artists of I Want to Go Home ), musicians (the pop culture hero George Gershwin turning everyday speech into songs in made-for-TV documentary Gershwin ), and even political activists (the frustrated revolutionaries and thinkers of La guerre est finie  and his segment of the omnibus feature Far from Vietnam ). In one sense, they mirror Resnais, whose films are often shaped by strong formal choices around which everything in their worlds revolves: the making of the 1930s-set mystery Stavisky (1974) entirely in 1930s film grammar, or the use of isolated pop song lyrics sung in between lines of spoken dialogue in Same Old Song (1997).
At the same time, the films subvert their maker’s authority, as well as anyone else’s, and usually do so with a sense of humor. Debates about whether humans control their destinies often turn into images of animals like cats and mice, playing upon how rational creatures are also creatures of instinct. In Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980), the real-life scientist Henri Laborit demonstrates how the behavior of mice predicts our own while scripted scenes unfold of three “case studies” growing up in French society. Laughter comes out of moments in which the people behave like their creature counterparts, as well as out of ones in which they act against expectations.
Resnais’s later films employ several of the same actors repeatedly while tracing variations in human behavior. In some cases (such as his four films based on Ayckbourn plays, and his mounting of the 1925 operetta Not on the Lips ), the films are outright adaptations of theater pieces, but even if not, they present people within overtly artificial, theatrical space whose openness calls attention to what cannot be seen.
André Dussollier plays a man struggling to express his growing feelings for a woman played by Azéma during the long, dialogue-driven nighttime scenes of Mélo (1986), while Azéma’s character tries to face her burgeoning love for Dussollier’s amid the glowing hues of Wild Grass (2009). In Love Unto Death (1984), Azéma plays an earthbound woman who first attempts to resurrect her deceased love (Pierre Arditi) and then commits to following him into the underworld; in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! (2012), Azéma and Arditi essentially reverse their parts within a staging of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. They appear as one of several pairs of younger and older actors who assume the roles, delicately suggesting that the thought of love need not age.
Resnais’s chief points of reference included show tunes, comic books, and old movies, with which he felt in more direct contact than he did with being an innovator. Shortly after the premiere of Last Year at Marienbad, an interviewer asked Resnais whether he believed that the cinema was dead, alive, or about to be born, to which he replied, “It flows on like a river.”