Alain Resnais, the French director best known for such mid-century masterpieces as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year At Marienbad, died Saturday in Paris. The exact cause of his death has not been reported. Resnais, who began his career in the 1930s and was active during every decade since, leaves behind a vast, eclectic body of work. He was 91, though one would never guess that from watching his recent work, blessed as it with a youthful energy and playfulness.
“The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback,” Resnais told journalist Joan Dupont a few years ago. Perhaps more than any other director, he was fascinated by the interplay between now and then, two states of existence his films would frequently collapse. Memory was his great subject, but other processes of the mind—dreams, imagination, willful distortion of experience—also played an important role in his work.
Because he began making features in 1959, around the same time as fellow countrymen Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, Resnais is sometimes lumped in with the French New Wave filmmakers of that era. But he identified more with the “Left Bank” group, whose members (Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda, and the similarly memory-obsessed Chris Marker) contributed to an equally vibrant, concurrent movement. Whereas the New Wavers drew largely on cinematic influences, Resnais frequently played tribute to other mediums—to literature, to theater, to music, to poetry, even to comic books. (In the early ’60s, he’s said to have owned the largest private collection of comics in all of France.) Resnais was, as A.V. Club writer Ignatiy Vishnevetsky put it in a review of his penultimate film, a “cultural omnivore.”
No one made films quite like Resnais, whose narratives—unconventionally structured, sometimes so nonlinear that they flirted with pure dream logic—often seemed in danger of splintering into pieces. Resnais was unquestionably an auteur, but he was also a persistent collaborator, enlisting the writing talents of literary figures, like Nouveau Roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, and playwrights, like the Englishman Alan Ayckbourn. For the almost 80 years he was active, the filmmaker never stopped looking for new coconspirators, even as he amassed a group of regular artistic cohorts—among them his second wife, Sabine Azéma, who starred in many of his later movies.
Resnais was born in 1922, the son of a pharmacist, at the Vannes commune in Brittany, France. An avid reader, he discovered filmmaking at 12, surrealism at 14, and the acting bug at 17, when he moved to Paris to become an assistant at the Théâtre des Mathurins. After studying acting for a few years, and then fighting with the allied forces in WWII, Resnais took up film editing as a career. He began making short documentaries in 1946, many of them observational tours of factories and museums. Though some of these early works are now considered “lost,” the ones that remain make it clear that Resnais was always more of a poet than a dry documentarian.
The director’s first major achievement arrived in 1955, with the completion of the 32-minute nonfiction film Night And Fog. Widely considered the first cinematic depiction of the Nazi concentration camps, the short alternates contemporary, color footage of the abandoned Auschwitz and Majdanek with black-and-white images shot while the camps were still active. Resnais convinced the French poet Jean Cayrol, a survivor of Gusen, to read the film’s sober narration, which eventually turns to clinical descriptions of the atrocities committed within the walls of the camps. Along with Shoah, it’s one of the most stark, poetic, unsentimental movies ever made about the Holocaust. It also established many of the filmmaker’s common themes, including an inability to reconcile a traumatic past with an uncertain present.
Resnais’ first feature grew out of the success of Night And Fog, whose producers sought to commission the director to make a comparable film about the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. Fearful of repeating himself, Resnais instead used the tragedy as a backdrop for a narrative feature, albeit one that incorporates documentary footage and proceeds in a nonlinear fashion. Hiroshima Mon Amour, about the doomed love affair between a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) and a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva), made an enormous splash both in France and on the international festival circuit. (It’s sometimes credited for introducing the technique of using a split-second flashback to suggest flutters of memory.) On a personal note, this was my first exposure to Resnais. I remember watching the elliptical opening scene, excerpted by Jonathan Rosenbaum during a lecture at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and becoming convinced that I was witnessing the start of the greatest movie ever made. (It’s probably not, but it certainly ranks high in the all-time canon.)
Hiroshima Mon Amour kicked off what many consider Resnais’ most vital period as a filmmaker, though that may have as much to do with the worldwide visibility of French cinema during the ’60s as it does with the consistency of the director’s early output. Maybe his most well-known film, Resnais’ second feature, Last Year In Marienbad, is one of the most famous puzzle-box mysteries in film history, its flood of abstraction described as incoherent by some, dazzling by others. Focused on what may or may not have happened between an unnamed man and a woman at an elegant hotel, the film unfolds as a jumble of ambiguous imagery, leaping back and forth in time and relying on multiple, possibly unreliable narrators. More than any of the director’s other movies, Marienbad conveys the notion that memory is fundamentally inexact and the past unknowable. It’s elusive, haunting, sometimes impenetrable—a huge influence on fellow nightmare-weaver David Lynch.
Resnais would continue to toy with ambitious narrative approaches throughout the rest of his career, dicing stories into non-chronological pieces, adopting theatrical structures, and applying lyrical editing rhythms to otherwise straightforward dramas. A huge influence on Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, the 1968 Je T'aime, Je T'aime uses time travel as a metaphor for the process of sorting through a failed relationship. Meanwhile, Mon Oncle D'Amérique, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1980, uses three vignettes (and three characters) to demonstrate the principles of the French physician Henri Laborit. With I Want To Go Home, the director paid tribute to cartoons and comic books by putting his flesh-and-blood actors in conversation with animated characters. He never stopped pushing in new directions.
Resnais once remarked that he “never had an appetite for filmmaking”—that directing movies was a job he happened to be good at and found himself lucky to make a living doing. But looking at the last decade of his career, it’s hard to see anything but unwavering enthusiasm for the medium. Whereas some filmmakers lose their spark of eccentricity, as well as their energy, as they enter their august years, Resnais only got weirder and more adventurous with age. Wild Grass (2009) is one of his most dazzling and perplexing films—an oddball stalker comedy that pokes surrealist holes in rom-com convention. It also has one of the biggest WTF endings in recent memory.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, about the death of a playwright and the performance mounted in his honor, functions so well as a symbolic farewell address that many preemptively, falsely declared it Renais’ swan song. His actual final feature, Life Of Riley, premiered three weeks ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize for movies that “open new perspectives.” That’s a pretty good summary of what the director did over the course of his entire career, from those early, process-obsessed documentaries to the stage and literary adaptations he made half a century later.