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.

Photo: Getty
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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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