BY Jonathon Sturgeon in Profiles | 29 MAY 14
Featured in
Issue 164

Leaving Time

Image and imagination in the films of Alain Resnais

BY Jonathon Sturgeon in Profiles | 29 MAY 14

Alain Resnais, La vie est un roman (Life is a Bed of Roses), 1983. Courtesy: Artificial Eye

A casket emerges from the Église Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in Paris holding the body of Alain Resnais. The camera is shaky and the footage overexposed, but it is possible to make out faces in the trailing procession: there are politicians, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and President François Hollande, as well as Resnais’s friends and colleagues, foremost among them Sabine Azéma, his wife and leading actress, followed by Pierre Arditi, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Mathieu Amalric and other luminaries of the French screen. As an image of the death of an artist who so often faced up to death with images, the YouTube footage of Resnais’s state funeral, held in March this year, leaves something to be desired. But this funerary scene conjures another: that of the same troupe of actors gathered in Resnais’s penultimate film, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! (2012), mourning the death of a playwright – a proxy for Resnais himself – who is not, it transpires, actually dead. And this depiction of the playwright, in turn, recalls another: the drunk and dying novelist in Providence (1977), whose gushes of memory collide with his own fictions. Each of these images recalls another until, like the heroes of Je t’aime je t’aime (I Love You, I Love You, 1968) and La guerre est finie (The War Is Over, 1966), we are no longer wholly in control of this visual movement backward (memory) and forward (premonition). Instead, we are firmly in the terrain of Resnais, who, perhaps more than any other filmmaker, worked to allow the free play of the imagination through an ars rhythmica of images.

My favourite image of Resnais comes from Sacha Vierny, his longtime cinematographer, who once reminded an interviewer that the director composed all of his own tracking shots. He would hold the viewfinder to one eye while reading the script with the other, mumbling lines while he walked, tracing the angle of the shot, matching his pace with the sound of the words. It was this obsessive sense of timing, combined with editing skills that Jean-Luc Godard admitted were second only to Sergei Eisenstein, which produced what Gilles Deleuze called ‘the time-image’. For Deleuze, Resnais rivalled even Marcel Proust in his ability to navigate time and memory, ‘which overflows the conditions of psychology, memory for two, memory for several, memory-world, memory-ages of the world’.

I believe critics of Resnais have relied too heavily on Deleuze and the journal Cahiers du cinéma. Deleuze gets almost everything right, but he over-emphasizes memory and undersells Resnais in the process. We should rather take Resnais at his word that the subject of his cinema is not memory but ‘the imaginary’. The imaginary is, of course, what the imagination partakes in, and the imagination consists of images. It is easy to follow this line of thinking back to memory and to assert that, because Resnais worked using photographic film, his images were always recordings of the past and therefore about memory. It is much harder – but even more necessary – to believe that Resnais knew something many critics and theorists would not know for decades: that images are the material of memory but also the stuff of fiction (Providence), political struggle (La guerre est finie), art and music (Mélo, 1986), science (Mon oncle d’Amérique, My American Uncle, 1980) and nearly everything else. He also knew that the locus of the image, its medium, is not film but the body – just think of the entangled, almost Pompeiian figures that open Hiroshima mon amour (Hiroshima My Love, 1959). This is why, when he was faced with the ‘death of cinema’ fad that re-surfaced a few years ago, he calmly asserted that ‘cinema will last as long as humans do’. Why? Because the image is in our eyes and minds.

Resnais earned his reputation early with a string of documentaries that – as the film critic A.S. Hamrah once remarked to me – somehow seem more contemporary than later films on the same subjects. I suspect that Van Gogh (1948), Guernica (1949), Les statues meurent aussi (Statues also Die, 1953, with Chris Marker), Toute la mémoire du monde (All the World’s Memories, 1956) and, especially, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), all made before or during the early years of Cahiers du cinéma, positioned Resnais as an envied older brother to the nouvelle vague. Serge Daney nearly admits as much in his 1992 essay ‘The Tracking Shot in Kapo’ – one of his final pieces and probably one of the greatest remembrances in all of film criticism – when he calls him ‘Saint Alain Resnais’ and confesses that he was the first teacher in his ‘primitive scene’. The upshot of this is that, for years, audiences have been made to believe that Resnais is both too un-critical (never a critic) and too intellectual (likes art too much). This belief was exacerbated by us critics such as Pauline Kael, whose accusation that Resnais’s most famous film, L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), was nothing more than a ‘beautiful diddle’ made by a passionless ‘introvert’, has had a lasting impact on Resnais’s us reputation. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Resnais’s best critic, argues that the filmmaker is a closet critic of everything from drama and music to art and literature.

I prefer to think of Resnais as an artist. Moreover – and against the assertions of his critics – he was always a politically engaged artist on the level of Godard and Straub-Huillet. It is tempting to think that Resnais dropped politics after his turn toward the theatrical with Mélo; and certainly – with its winding monologues, red curtain, and dramaturgical sense of time and construction – Mélo established a trend toward theatrical artifice that would mark later films, like Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places, 2006). But Resnais, I think, undertook his theatrical turn in order to explore the layers of commonality and virtuality that emerge when actors share a space that is itself both real and imagined (a theatre stage) – as in You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, in which actors use their real names (like Amalric) while playing fictional versions of themselves who, in turn, re-enact their (fictional) past roles in the play Eurydice, alongside a filmed version of Eurydice played by younger actors.

In Mon oncle d’Amérique, the autodidact scientist-philosopher Henri Laborit, playing himself, suggests that the French saying ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ might be replaced with ‘consciousness, knowledge, imagination’. In an interview with Rosenbaum, Resnais hopes that the audience is free to reject this statement, to measure it against what they see and hear in the film. I think Resnais’s sentiment reveals a major continuity in his work, a second justification for his turn to the theatrical. If Godard and Roberto Rossellini fetishize chance, Resnais believed that chance only enters the picture after a dramatic space has been constructed, and this relies on the active mental life of the spectator as much as it does on mise-en-scène or montage. In this respect, his attitude toward the spectator – Resnais has always said that, with regard to belief, he adopts the perspective of the spectator – is not unlike Jacques Rancière’s in The Emancipated Spectator (2010): one who is free to imagine is an actor who invites chance. And the two arts whose spectators are probably most unjustly maligned: cinema and theatre.

Of course, the imagination can fall silent, as Emmanuelle Riva’s character says in Hiroshima mon amour. It can happen stunningly, in the face of atrocity, or quietly, in death. Resnais, who faced up to death and atrocity at the beginning of his career, is no longer with us; we no longer have access to his generous and agile mind. But we are still free to carry his images.

Jonathon Sturgeon is senior editor at The Baffler. He was previously deputy editor of artnet News, literary editor at Flavorwire, senior editor at The American Reader and an associate editor at n+1.