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Alain Resnais defines enigma

Harvard retrospective celebrates a director who has made art out of opacity

Saoirse Ronan "Sometimes I stop and realize I just did a movie with Peter Jackson and I think, wow, this is actually happening to me," says Saoirse Ronan.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 10, 2010

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Alain Resnais had been making films professionally for nearly a decade when the release of “Night and Fog’’ (1955) established him as a major director. A landmark act of clarification, that documentary assembled footage of the Holocaust for a 32-minute indictment of the Final Solution which remains unsurpassed for economy and effectiveness. Yet as regards Resnais’s reputation, what stuck would seem to have been the title. He soon became renowned for obscurity, not clarity. Has the work of any major director been as inextricably associated with a single word as Resnais’s has with “enigmatic’’?

Still working at 87, he was the toast of Cannes last spring with his latest film, “Wild Grass,’’ a comedy. Resnais made his first film, a short, in 1936. A string of documentary shorts followed after the war. Then half a century ago came Resnais’s first feature, “Hiroshima Mon Amour’’ (1959) - pause over that title: It has to be the most startling in movie history - and the workings of cinematic narrative would never again be quite the same.

Film is predicated on the assumption that seeing is believing; otherwise, why bother to watch (let alone pay money to watch). Resnais takes the willing suspension of disbelief one step further. Such films as “Hiroshima,’’ “Last Year at Marienbad’’ (1961), and “La guerre est finie’’ (1966) are monuments - as well as enticements - to the willing suspension of understanding.

All are part of a 14-film Harvard Film Archive retrospective, “Alain Resnais and the Enigmatic Art of Memory’’ (note the adjective). The series starts Friday, with “Marienbad,’’ and concludes Jan. 24 with “Night and Fog’’ and three earlier documentaries.

One of the more peculiar twists of film history is this grandmaster of the opaque beginning as a recorder of firm, full-on reality. It would hardly be more incongruous to learn Kurosawa started out directing sitcoms or Bresson the occasional slasher movie.

Except that, in execution, it wasn’t so odd. One of the things that makes “Hiroshima’’ so striking is how it’s a hybrid of documentary and fiction. It begins with a long montage of the city and victims of the atomic bombing. What remains most absorbing about the film isn’t the way Emmanuelle Riva’s character braids the identity of her Japanese lover (Eiji Okada) with her memories of the German soldier she loved during the Nazi occupation of France. It’s the supremely confident inquisitiveness with which Resnais’s camera acquaints us with a city everyone has heard of but hardly anyone has seen.

“Hiroshima’’ made Resnais famous. “Marienbad’’ made him notorious. “Hiroshima’’ collapsed past and present and mingled East and West. “Marienbad’’ went much further: collapsing real and unreal, mingling past, present, and might have been. It was hailed, winning the Golden Lion at Venice. It was hated; “the snow job in the ice palace,’’ Pauline Kael wrote. Either way, “Marienbad’’ was very much discussed.

In their true-or-false debate about the events (or non-events) at the opulent resort where “Marienbad’’ is set, both admirers and detractors tended to overlook the most important thing about the film: the astonishing grace of Resnais’s restless, gliding camera. There is perhaps no greater demonstration that sheer beauty onscreen can render believing and understanding superfluous acts. “Shall we tell the truth or make it up?’’ a new comrade asks Yves Montand’s weary revolutionary in “La guerre.’’ “Make it up,’’ Montand replies. “The truth is of no importance.’’ It’s fair to assume he speaks for Resnais.

Only five years separate the release of “Marienbad’’ and “La guerre.’’ Yet during that time Resnais went from being very likely the most-discussed director in the world to seeming almost passe. It’s a status he’s never quite shed, various Cesars (the French Oscar) and prizes at Cannes and Berlin notwithstanding. Resnais’s supersession is more than just the general lack of interest in foreign film here. It hinges on a larger shift in the culture, a shift from which he much benefited at first and then much suffered.

Resnais was never part of the French New Wave, even if he did count among his collaborators Agnes Varda and Chris Marker. True, he was older than Truffaut and Godard and the rest, but only by a few years. The divide owed less to chronology than aspiration. Film itself was the engine driving the films of the New Wave. Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray meant more to the Nouvelle Vague - and certainly more to its work - than Goya or the nouveau roman did. For Resnais, though, film was something quite different: the pursuit of culture by other means, more aesthetic vehicle than aesthetic end.

Anyone who has seen the feline elegance of Resnais’s camerawork cannot doubt either his devotion to film or his aptitude for the medium. Something like “Private Fears in Public Faces’’ (2006) is a marvel of crisply efficient filmmaking, not so much opening out Alan Ayckbourn’s play as unstitching it, turning girdle into chemise. Yet Resnais’s love of film exists within a larger cultural context - and it is within that context his films operate. That’s a source of their richness and grandeur, but also their tendency to fussiness and inertia.

Resnais’s features exude a sense of cultivation. They make the movie theater an extension of the gallery and library. The documentary Resnais made after “Night and Fog’’ was about France’s national library, “Toute la memoire du monde’’ (1956) - “all the world’s memory.’’ His early features feel like an extension of that memory, Truffaut’s and Godard’s like a rupture with it. Among Resnais’s documentary subjects were van Gogh, Versailles, Gauguin, Picasso’s “Guernica,’’ and, yes, Goya.

Once he started making features, Resnais chose to work with major novelists: Marguerite Duras, on “Hiroshima,’’ Alain Robbe-Grillet, on “Marienbad,’’ Jorge Semprun, on “La guerre’’ and “Stavisky’’ (1976). The hero of his one English-language film, “Providence’’ (1977), is a dying novelist. Resnais’s literariness extends to his home life: His wife, Florence, is the daughter of Andre Malraux.

At the time of “Hiroshima’’ and “Marienbad,’’ cinema was just establishing itself as an enterprise valued even in mandarin culture. Those films seemed a perfect bridge between past and future - doubly appropriate, in fact, in light of Resnais’s thematic concerns. Then the ’60s hit, and such concerns became utterly anachronistic. There’s a telling scene in “La guerre’’ where a baffled Montand confronts a group of young radicals who want to use terrorist tactics to disrupt tourism rather than follow the textbook Marxist approach he’s used to. The radicals wear jackets and ties. One can imagine Godard hooting.

The world had changed, and the world of film with it. Just as “Marienbad’’ is the masterpiece Max Ophuls didn’t live to direct, so might “The Conformist’’ be seen as the greatest Alain Resnais movie not directed by Alain Resnais. “The closed little world we live in,’’ a character observes in “La guerre,’’ “became unsettled and full of snares.’’ That’s certainly true of the world we see up on the screen in Resnais’s films, the world within the frame. It also became true of the world surrounding those films.

“Alain Resnais and the Enigmatic Art of Memory’’ is at the Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St. , Cambridge, Jan. 15-24. Call 617-495-4700 or go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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