As a prelude to a season of Alain Resnais films that will get under way in earnest next week, Michel Ciment (editor of the French film journal Positif) gave an introduction to Resnais’ fifty year career, followed by a screening of Providence.
Ciment’s overview of Resnais’ work and practice was erudite in nailing his unique gifts, while correcting what he sees as common misconceptions.
While many people classify Resnais as an intellectual on account of the apparently complex structures of his films and their ‘essay’ nature, Ciment stresses the instinctiveness of his film-making. Resnais, he argued, was strongly influenced by surrealism, and its traditions are anti-intellectual or at least anti-analytical. Resnais took from surrealism the urge to combine disparate elements in unusual ways. Two of his trademarks follow from this: first, an attention to editing as a means of making associative links (Jean-Luc Godard apparently proposed that Resnais was the best editor since Eistenstein); and secondly a combination of popular culture and high artifice that recognised no scale of values for judging between them. Resnais’ biggest commercial success, On Connaît La Chanson, is an example of such a combination.
Resnais approached different parts of film-making in different ways. He has used the same production designer, Jacques Saulnier, for over forty years. On the other hand, while he has never taken a direct hand in writing screenplays, he has rarely used the same writer twice, and generally has not used professional screenwriters (Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet being celebrated examples, who were novelists when they first wrote for Resnais, and then went on to be make their own films).
Peter Greenaway has always acknowledged a debt to Resnais, and the clip Ciment showed from Mon Oncle D’Amérique could easily have been one of Greenaway’s early shorts. Greenaway’s casting of John Gielgud as Prospero in Prospero’s Books is a direct descendent of Gielgud’s part in Providence. Having discovered Resnais fifteen years ago and then not seen many of his films for some time, I hadn’t previously made the link with Chris Marker (whom I’ve only come to know in the last five years or so), though it now seems blindingly obvious.
Unfortunately one of my favourite Resnais films, the whimsical La vie est un Roman isn’t showing in the current season, but I’m looking forward to L’Amour à Mort and Je t’aime, Je t’aime.