“After the cinema, nothing surprises you. Everything is possible.” So says the lovesick obsessive Georges Palet in a scene from Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass (Les herbes folles), which premiered this past May at the Cannes Film Festival, exactly 50 years after Resnais’ debut, Hiroshima Mon Amour, was hailed by Eric Rohmer as “the first modern film of sound cinema.”
In that half-century, Resnais, whose work is the subject of a monthlong retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has done much to implode, reshape and expand our own sense of cinematic possibilities, from his collaborations with nouveau roman architects Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima) and Alain Robbe-Grillet (Last Year at Marienbad) and his proto–Charlie Kaufman time-travel opus, Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, to his unrealized project with Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee — decades before comics became all the Hollywood rage. Perpetually avant-garde and avant la lettre, a forerunner of the French New Wave but never officially part of it, at 87, Resnais still seems driven by a restless, childlike curiosity, as likely to settle on the behavioral psychologist Henri Laborit (whose work inspired 1980’s Mon oncle d’Amerique) as the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (whom he has twice adapted). In hindsight, Resnais’ 1956 short film, Toute la mémoire du monde, a portrait of the French national library and its encyclopedic holdings, seems less documentary than autobiography.
“They say that a director always makes the same film,” says Resnais when I meet him on a damp Paris morning earlier this month, his beige overcoat — the same one he seems to be wearing in every photograph ever taken of him — turned up at the collar, his gleaming sneakers nearly the same shade of white as his swept-back hair. “I try to make, as François Truffaut said, the next film in opposition to the one that came before. I’m not sure if I succeed. To put it another way, I agree with the auteur theory but I don’t consider myself an auteur. I’m more of an artisan, a craftsman.” Such self-effacement is par for the course with Resnais, who has always eschewed the “a film by” credit and has never taken formal screenplay credit, though he is said to collaborate closely with his screenwriters (who have also included the cartoonist Jules Feiffer and playwright David Mercer).
Breaking a careerlong policy of never adapting a novel, Resnais based Wild Grass (which will be released by Sony Pictures Classics early next year) on The Incident by French author Christian Gailly, whose writing, he says, “had a theatrical tone and dialogue that I liked very much, that seemed very close to a project I had in my head.” The movie follows the blossoming albeit largely one-sided amour fou between Georges (playedby Resnais regular André Dussolier) and Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azema, the real-life Mrs. Resnais), a dentist who moonlights as an aviatrix. The theft of Marguerite’s purse, seen flying through the air in the early moments of the film, is the inciting event of Gailly’s title. When Georges subsequently recovers her wallet in a parking garage, the seemingly happily married husband and father begins fantasizing about this strange dentist/pilot with a mountain of frizzy red curls — a lust that goes on to express itself in a series of strangely comic and even violent ways. Is Georges mad or merely madly in love? Is Marguerite terrified of him, turned on, or both? As in so much of Resnais’ work, multiple interpretations and the absence of a concrete reality are par for the course.
“I have the impression that these are two people who have no reason to meet, no reason to love each other,” says Resnais — words that might just as soon apply to the bombed-out lovers of Hiroshima or the desiccated tourists of Marienbad (which remains, for many, the definitive modernist art film). “In French, ‘les herbes folles’ means a plant that grows in a place where it has no hope of developing, in a crack in a wall or a ceiling. I wanted to say that I consider these two characters to be completely deprived of reason.” Then he adds, in English: “But aren’t we all? When you read the history of France or America or England, it’s a litany of mistakes: The king should not have done this; the people should not have done that. Why should a character be any different?”
Though he rarely gives interviews, Resnais is generous with his time and considered in his responses, which tend to come forth in slow, carefully articulated sentences. He is happy to engage on almost any subject, from the strict Catholic schools he attended as a child in Brittany (where “cinema wasn’t considered an art; it was a distraction”) to his early inclination that “there was something important in cinema, which was the manipulation of time through editing.” It is an idea Resnais, who had been teaching himself filmmaking since receiving an 8mm camera at the age of 12, was able to explore further when he moved to Nazi-occupied Paris and enrolled in one of the first classes of the French national film school (IDHEC). “Maybe a single image wasn’t anything, but the three following images could provoke a style that was similar to literature,” he says.
The persistence of time would surface in much of Resnais’ work of the subsequent five decades, in the astonishing now-and-then Auschwitz juxtapositions of his 1955 short, Night and Fog (the first major film about the Holocaust, and one of the most affecting), in the nonlinear loop-de-loops of Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime (still one of Resnais’ most rarely screened films, showing twice at LACMA), and in the compression of simultaneously occurring events of Muriel ou Le temps d’un retour. That film, a grim masterpiece about several characters traumatized by their direct or indirect involvement in the Algerian War, also marked a rare departure for Resnais from his signature moving camera, with all of the shots instead taking from fixed camera positions to emphasize the characters’ claustrophobia and willful amnesia.
“Before shooting, I said that there would be no tracks or dollies,” says Resnais. “The producer asked me to please use at least 10 meters of track, and I said no. As a consequence, there were so many camera positions that it was the longest shooting of my career.” He then mentions, for the second time in our interview, the cartoonist Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. “It interested me in his work that he told his story by writing the dialogue balloons and, after, he drew in the people and the décor. But first the text. Likewise, for me, the movement of the camera depends on what is being said.”
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The conditional nature of memory, both personal and historical, has been another career-spanning preoccupation, though Resnais himself bristles a bit at the “memory” label. “I prefer to say ‘the imaginary,’ ” he says. “All our lives, we live with the memory of a sad experience, or a pleasant one, and thanks to those memories, we try to avoid other sad experiences and try to repeat pleasant ones. But we don’t remember things exactly as they happened, thanks to the chemical processes of the brain. A memory that’s too short doesn’t suffice; with the imaginary, one can retain everything.”
If one were to summarize Resnais’ incredibly diverse filmography in a single statement, it might be an inversion of the architectural maxim that form should follow function. For Resnais, form is paramount. “I always have the idea that if there’s a precise form, you will get the emotion of the spectator, the emotion and the interest,” he says — and it’s this concern that underlies Resnais’ most seemingly disparate work, from the visceral “pure cinema” of his early films to the deliberate artifice of his more recent play adaptations. It has also led some to accuse Resnais of being overly cerebral and distant, including Pauline Kael’s famous charge (in a review of 1977’s Providence) that “Most of the giants of film haven’t been able to find the form for everything they’ve got in their heads; Resnais seems to have nothing but form in his.”
But while Resnais’ films can seem cool to the touch, those implacable surfaces more often than not belie churning currents of complex human emotion, from the shell-shocked survivors of Hiroshima and Muriel to the hopeless romantics of Wild Grass. “It’s really a matter of life imitating art instead of the opposite — the way we often feel the emotions of everyday life as if they had already registered on the screen,” he says. “When everyday life resembles cinema, it interests me more than when I see a documentary film. If you make a film very close to reality, you don’t have to give it a form. I feel that when there is a form, I come closer in fact to the reality of life.”
THE CLASSIC FILMS OF ALAIN RESNAIS | LACMA Bing Theater | Through Sat., Oct. 17 | lacma.org/film