It is with the greatest of sadness that we write of the death of Alain Resnais, the king of The Left Bank of French Cinema.
Though the temptation to do so is certainly there, it’s far too simple an action to refer to Resnais as simply an “experimental filmmaker” as news headlines around the world have done so this morning. He was far more than that.
Though active before, Alain Resnais came of age during the boom town years of the Nouvelle Vague. Operating “across the Seine”, amongst the Rive Gauche with filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy and Chris Marker, Resnais constructed his own form of philosophically driven, provocative cinema. It has often been said that the key difference between the filmmakers of the Left Bank and the better known Cahiers Five is in the Left Bank filmmakers reliance upon the cinema as the perfect medium for expression, as opposed to one driven by the all-consuming cinephilia of the figures of the Nouvelle Vague.
While bold and unusual in their construction, Resnais’ films were never so illusive as to put off an audience. A natural point of visitation for the blossoming cinephile, his back-to-back masterpieces, produced in the midst the most exciting time for French cinema since the dawn of the perforation, Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year At Marienbad are the kind of oxymoronic statements of cinema that defined the age of European art that they were born into. Both challenging and hugely satisfying at once, Resnais’ work from this period, which also includes the landscape shifting concentration camp documentary Night And Fog, a film with more power in it’s 32 minutes than most filmmakers will eke out in a career, and Muriel ou le Temps d’un detour, which saw the director work with his Last Year At Marienbad star Delphine Seyrig was in itself enough to secure a legacy that would rank atop the very best of World Cinema, but it didn’t end there.
In 1968, and with French culture undergoing a major transition, Resnais turned his attention to something far different, with Je t’aime, je t’aime, a time travel-centric science-fiction movie seemingly shorn of the political undertones of his earlier films. This in itself was an act against the grain, with the events of Mai ’68 across France otherwise engaging the masses with a socio-political bent like never before. The subject of recent re-evaluation, that will only hopefully develop only further, Je t’aime, je t’aime was somewhat ironically lost in time, thanks to the abandonment of that year’s Cannes Film Festival, where the film was scheduled to play in competition.
Such professional redefinition was a mainstay of the Resnais way. In more recent years his work has largely been defined by his relationship with two people, both of which fused an inseparable connection between the real-world, the theatre and the silver screen; Alan Ayckbourn, Resnais’ great friend and a man whose work the latter has adapted three times for the screen, and Sabine Azéma, Resnais’ second wife and muse for much of the last thirty years of his body of work. Azéma, an infectious personality who I’ve personally had the pleasure of spending time in the company of, was the perfect on-screen representation of these later works, and the ideal companion for Resnais during his twilight years.
I’ll close with this thought. Last month at Berlin, a festival five years younger than Resnais’ first short film, the director won the prize for innovation for his latest film, Life Of Riley (aptly enough, an Ayckbourn adaptation featuring Azéma). At 91 years old Alain Resnais remained a figure of note.
My thoughts with Sabine Azéma, his family and those closest to him.
Adam Batty – Editor
This week’s Criticwire Survey. Oscar Fiats.