“It’s often been said of my work that the search for style has resulted in a want of feeling,” says the dying novelist played by John Gielgud in Alain Resnais‘ film Providence. “However, I’d put it another way. I‘d say that style is feeling, in its most elegant and economic expression.” Those words, written by the British playwright and screenwriter David Mercer, apply rather neatly to Resnais himself, whose elegant but often willfully cryptic and cerebral films have amassed acclaim and denunciation in equal measure. Born in France in 1922, and perhaps closer in spirit to the experimental New Novel of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet than to the cinematic New Wave of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, of which he was an honored but somewhat distant member, the 78-year-old Resnais is a director whose work, in the slightly ominous words of the film critic David Thomson, “is in need of serious reappraisal.”
Any reappraisal has to begin with Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the two films, scripted by Duras and Robbe-Grillet, respectively, with which Resnais made his reputation as the most highbrow of highbrow directors. Both movies concern themselves with abstractions like time and memory, and with the impossibility of rendering reality truthfully, more than they do with character. (“You have seen nothing at Hiroshima.” “I have seen everything. Everything,” as a famous bit of dialogue goes.) They are also marked by a highly original and distinctive use of cutting and camera movement, as is Muriel (1963), Resnais’ third and slightly more accessible feature, where at times the shots succeed each other with a rapidity that would not be out of place in contemporary Hollywood, although the subject matter remains as rarefied as ever.
Too rarefied, perhaps. There‘s a good argument for saying that Resnais’ early films are the kind of French art movies that can give French art movies a bad name. Marienbad, in particular, could be described as a film about perfectly dressed people who appear to have had their brains removed, and are thus condemned to wander through a cinematic limbo for all eternity having conversations such as the following:
“I have myself waited a long time for you.”
“In your dreams?”
“And you are trying to escape me once more.”
“What do you mean? I don‘t understand a thing you say.”
To which the viewer can only say, “Amen.”
But there’s far more to Resnais than that. Later films, such as the superb English-language Providence (1977), which contrasts a novelist‘s hallucinatory portrayal of his family with the way his family actually presents itself in the real world, retain the intellectual ambition of the early work while ditching the preciosity. In part, this is due to the acting. Gielgud gives a ferocious performance in Providence, as does the wonderfully icy Dirk Bogarde, but the film benefits also — dare one say — from David Mercer’s injection of some blunt English humor into Resnais‘ hitherto joke-free oeuvre. After the refined blather penned by Robbe-Grillet for Marienbad, lines such as “You can’t just bring your erection into my marriage, Woodford!” provide some much-needed relief.
Another genuinely original and thought-provoking film that Resnais made later in his career is Mon Oncle d‘Amerique (1980), in which a scientist’s grimly amusing lecture on the behavior of caged rats under stress is interspersed with a compelling drama about human beings at work. (Gerard Depardieu, in particular, gives a quietly moving performance.) As with so many of Resnais‘ movies, the characters can seem more like pieces in an intellectual puzzle than people in their own right, but the difference here is that the themes — work, love, illness — are firmly grounded in everyday reality. Human office workers may behave like rats in a cage (particularly if they are surrounded by backstabbers), but Resnais makes them seem all the more human for it. It’s an oddly touching achievement — and one, perhaps, that only a director as stubbornly idiosyncratic as Resnais could have pulled off.