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.