IS IT MERE serendipity that this Alain Resnais retrospective coincides with the release of Raul Ruiz's ambitious Proust chronicle? Nearly all of Resnais' films could be titled Time Regained (also reviewed this week). From early documentary shorts to late mature features, his best work seems to have been triggered by the Proustian process of associative memory.
INDEFINITE TIME: THE FILMS OF ALAIN RESNAIS
runs September 15-;November 26 at Grand Illusion
Resnais is often lumped with the French New Wave, although he's more a part of the "Left Bank Group" with Chris Marker and Agnes Varda, directors of a more experimental bent, more intensely concerned with politics and history than the usual Cahiers du Cin魡 clan.
Resnais' debut feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), scripted by Marguerite Duras, remains a landmark of modernism in cinema (and accordingly begins the series with a weeklong run). It opened new perspectives for subjective narration, as a French actress' affair with a Japanese architect evokes memories of her earlier love for a German soldier in wartime France. Resnais negates the traditional film treatment of the past—using fast cuts without resorting to dissolves and fades—and employs associative editing to set images of Nevers and Hiroshima in counterpoint. The miracle of Hiroshima is that it dismantles the conventional order of cinema, but does so while telling a moving and understandable story.
Such is hardly the case with Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Resnais' visually stunning but listless and arty second feature, written by key nouveau roman figure Alain Robbe-Grillet. Like Hiroshima, it centers on a triangular relationship—a woman, her pursuing lover, and a man who may be her husband. The minimal plot concerns the lover's attempts to convince the woman that they met and had an affair the previous year—and to leave with him. The setting is a baroque chⴥau converted into a luxury hotel.
Rarely discussed as a political film, Marienbad is nonetheless an implicit denunciation of bourgeois values. It appears to be the first movie totally built on the concept of indeterminacy—that the viewer was expected to collaborate in creating its meaning became evident with the manifold press and public reactions. Its tone may be attributable to the fact that writer and director disagree about what actually did happen in the story; according to Resnais, the lovers had met before, while Robbe-Grillet has always maintained that they had not.
A VAMPISH YOUNG clotheshorse in Marienbad, Delphine Seyrig is almost unrecognizable in Resnais' bold and complex third feature, Muriel (1963), as a dowdy middle-aged widow attempting to revive an old love affair and incapable of living in the present. The double-stranded narrative also involves her stepson, a veteran of the Algerian war tormented by his participation in the torture and death of a young Arab girl and obsessed with atonement. The director's masterpiece, Muriel is one of the rare French films that concerns the war crimes associated with the Algerian conflict. The setting is Boulogne, a town mostly destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in an ugly modern style. Resnais' camera leapfrogs brilliantly: Day and night shots of the same locations are alternated, evoking a ravaged city where everything and everyone seems in a state of flux.
Among the other nine titles in the post-Hiroshima weekend series are Smoking and No Smoking (1993), based on a stage cycle by Alan Ayckbourn. In rural Yorkshire, all the characters—an alcoholic headmaster, his insecure wife, and their entourage—are played by Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azema. There are at least half a dozen stories, with twice as many potential conclusions—at crucial junctures the plot explores parallel universes inhabited by the same characters. Fortunately for filmgoers, the two films are being shown on two consecutive weekends—instead of as one marathon five-hour sitting.