(Editor’s note: Elaine had a particular connection to this director’s works, so she’s taking the reins for our tribute.)
Just before the glitter of the Oscars descended upon us yesterday, the world lost one of its greatest filmmakers, one who never actually won that golden statuette. Alain Resnais, the French director who changed the meaning of narrative and time in film, died on Saturday in Paris at the age of 91.
The son of a pharmacist, Resnais directed his first film when he was just 14 years old, an eight-millimeter endeavor now, somewhat appropriately, lost to time. He moved to Paris in 1939 to study acting, appearing as an extra in Marcel Carné’s “Les visiteurs du Soir” in 1942, and enrolling in France’s national film school upon is foundation in 1943. But it was in 1955 that he established himself with his powerful, haunting “Nuit et brouillard” (“Night and Fog”), a look at the Nazi death camps ten years on, a time when France, and the world, seemed to be permitting—and willing—these sites of horror to fade from memory. Though Resnais had the escalating Algerian War in mind when making it, the film now stands as one of the greatest testaments to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and the ease with which such events can be forgotten.
Resnais carried these same themes of memory, forgetting, trauma, and war into “Hiroshima mon amour” (1959), arguably the film by which he will be most remembered. Through the story of a brief affair between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect, Resnais wove the scars of the German occupation of France with the tragedy of Hiroshima. With its non-linear narrative, enigmatic screenplay written by Marguerite Duras, and cinematography at once crisp and dreamy, this hypnotic, beautiful film pushed the boundaries of cinematic technique and remains to this day an unparalleled work of art.
In addition to “Hiroshima mon amour,” Resnais will be remembered for “Last Year In Marienbad,” another film of memories tousled and time confused. The energetic filmmaker continued to work until the very end, with his last film, “Life of Riley”, debuting to good reviews at the Berlin Film Festival last month. This movie, about two people who discover that their friend has only a few months to live, was originally titled, “Love, drink, and sing,” a fitting last hurrah for its director. For all the melancholy of his films, Resnais was a man of incredible energy and enthusiasm who did not agree that he was “a filmmaker of memory”, but instead said, “No, I want to make films that describe the imaginary. It’s simply the astonishment over everything our imaginary can provoke.”
One of my favorite directors, Alain Resnais will always hold a special place for me, as his films influenced me throughout my studies, provided me with the topic for my undergraduate thesis, and continue to challenge and inspire me in the way I think and write. Few films have affected me the way “Hiroshima mon amour” did, and I will never forget Nevers, the protagonist’s hometown in “Hiroshima”, the thing in the world of which she thinks the least, and yet dreams of the most. Resnais was the master of truth in ambiguity, the blur between the remembered and the forgotten, and while he might not think it possible, I, for one, will not forget him.
Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Resnais, et au revoir.