Alain Resnais in Venice in 2006. The film director passed away on 1 March 2014. Photo: Getty
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Is it time for the English-speaking world to give the late Alain Resnais another chance?

The French film director Alain Resnais was largely neglected by English-speaking critics in his later years. But, as Oliver Farry argues, Resnais’ later work, is, in its own homely way, as formally and technically innovative, and as concerned with mortality as the earlier films.

At 37, Alain Resnais was not particularly young when his first feature Hiroshima mon amour came out in 1959. Nor was he particularly unknown, having already won the Prix Jean Vigo – France’s highest award for young filmmakers – twice, for his landmark holocaust documentary Night and Fog and for Statues Also Die, the anti-imperialist short film he made with Chris Marker in 1954. The international success of Hiroshima, which also marked Marguerite Duras’ cinematic debut, arrived at much the same moment as the careers of a slightly younger generation of filmmakers were being launched.

Resnais surfed on the coat-tails of the Nouvelle Vague but he maintained both a personal and cinematic distance from it for much of his career. Perhaps this is responsible for the relative obscurity he fell into in the English-speaking world from the 1970s on (though the similarly non-clubbable Louis Malle did not seem to suffer in the same way).

Resnais’ reputation among Anglophone critics and audiences remains largely petrified in a handful of early features: Hiroshima mon amour, Muriel (though that too is half-forgotten now), La Guerre est finie and the film his detractors love to flay him with, Last Year at Marienbad, winner of the Golden Lion at Venice in 1961. If Emmanuelle Riva’s terminally ill elderly wife in Michael Haneke’s Amour looked like she could well have been the same character as Riva’s tarred-and-feathered wartime heroine in Hiroshima mon amour, Resnais’ own later work, up until his death on the 1 March this year, had taken off in a much different direction.

Alan Resnais and Chris Marker, Statues Also Die (1953)

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

The early works – both the documentaries and shorts, of which he made some two dozen before turning to features, and those international hits – were suffused with politics and the events of recent and contemporary history: the Nazi extermination camps, Guernica, decolonisation, the Algerian war of independence. It was the formal experimentation embarked upon in the collaboration with Alain Robbe-Grillet in Last Year in Marienbad however that foretold the turn that Resnais’ work would take. It is almost as if Resnais were taking to heart the message being transmitted by Diego, the ageing Communist exile, to his comrades back in Madrid, in La guerre est finie – that it was time for a withdrawal from political action in preparation for the impending change. But maybe it was a self-imposed droit de réserve that muted Resnais – while Godard and Truffaut were shutting down the Cannes film festival in solidarity with the student rioters in May 68, Resnais was marrying the daughter of Henri Malraux, De Gaulle’s culture minister, who had recently borne the wrath of France’s cinephiles for his dismissal of Henri Langlois from the post of director of the Cinémathèque Française. Resnais himself said that he simply didn’t feel the urgency to make political film in a national cinema that was saturated with them. Perhaps, after twenty years of “serious” filmmaking, he felt he was all played out.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

The films in the 1970s beat a more eccentric path, such as the 1973 biopic Stavisky, with music by Stephen Sondheim, and were more formalistic, like Providence, Resnais’ only English-language film, in which John Gielgud was a dyspeptic ageing novelist playing havoc with his children’s lives through his fiction. But there was still a discordant tone in those films, a sliver of darkness, which was to become fainter still in the 1980s. Resnais built a repertory troupe around him, composed of some of French cinema’s gentler, more avuncular figures, such as André Dussolier, Pierre Arditi and Lambert Wilson, as well as his second wife, Sabine Azéma.

He dabbled in musicals, and increasingly adapted from the theatre – practically a taboo among the purist cineastes of the Nouvelle Vague. And it was unapologetically popular theatre he adapted – his penultimate film You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012) featured two plays by France’s most staged playwright, Jean Anouilh. Resnais also became an unlikely fan, and friend, of one of the most prolific of English dramatists, Alan Ayckbourne, adapting three of his plays – Intimate Exchanges as Smoking/No Smoking (1993), Private Fears in Public Places (2006) and his final film, Life of Riley (2014). Such an admirer was Resnais that he and Azéma tied the knot in Scarborough in 1998. The resolute unfashionableness of Ayckbourne probably didn’t help Resnais’ case with Britain’s metropolitan critics. Not that the Frenchman would have cared anyway.

Private Fears in Public Places (2006)

Resnais’ last big chance with the critics outside France was with Same Old Song, his homage to another British playwright, Dennis Potter, which won him his third César in 1997. A frothy comedy of manners written by yet another team of popular dramatists, Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, it incorporated classic French pop songs into its ambling narrative. It was an easy film to like but the songs, by the likes of France Gall, Jacques Dutronc and Alain Bashung, remained largely opaque to Anglophone audiences and the film made barely a dent outside French-speaking markets.

Same Old Song (1997)

Life of Riley (2014)

It would be a mistake though to make a sharp distinction between the various phases of Resnais’ career – particularly the moody monochrome arthouse hits of the early days and the later more mercurial technicolor work. That sliver of darkness never quite died out entirely, even if it was usually masked by cheerful amiability. His last two films are clearly intended as swan songs, refracted through the demises of unseen characters. In You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, the executors of a recently deceased theatre director invite his actors to his country home and get them to watch productions of two plays they acted in. It is a touching tribute and thank you from beyond the grave and one that Resnais might have suspected to be the last he himself issued.

He lived to complete one more, the adaptation of Ayckbourne’s Life of Riley, in which a group of friends putting on an amateur play fret over the short notice served to their friend George Riley. Unlike Resnais’ earlier stage adaptations, Life of Riley is filmed almost entirely theatrically, with painted, non-naturalistic sets and cartoon-drawn inter-titles. The film is warm but faintly sombre (Ayckbourn is not always the sunny playwright he is made out to be), a gathering in advance for a man soon to part. The French title chosen by Resnais, Aimer, boire et danser (Love, Drink and Dance) suggests he was granting permission to give him a boisterous wake.

Resnais’ films may have long ago retreated to the realm of the personal but they didn’t feel any less serious for all that. The final films, with their unerring eye on death and their celebration of a life lived, suggest the man’s work was concerned, above all, with the challenges inherent in working and living. Upon first moving to France, it came as a surprise to me that Resnais was still as prolific as ever and that his star remained undimmed among both French critics and audiences. English-speaking film critics, other than a francophile fringe consisting of the likes of the late Gilbert Adair and Jonathan Romney, have largely neglected the later Resnais. Maybe it is time to have a fresh look.

 

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times