Alain Resnais passed away this weekend at the age of 91. This pillar of “art films” worked continuously since the late 1940s, delighting cineastes, baffling the squares and continually pushing himself with different genres. He made musicals, he made documentaries, he made science-fiction. Indeed, his psychedelic freakout time travel film “Je t’aime, Je t’aime” is currently enjoying a revival at some of the hipper art houses (check local listings) and his final film “Life Of Riley,” his third adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play, just debuted at the Berlin Film Festival.
Resnais is considered part-of-yet-not-part-of the French New Wave. He wasn’t just a little older than Godard and Truffaut, but his early films had none of the spry, play it as it lays attitude that the classics of that era exuded. He made dense, atmospheric and emotional pictures. They certainly tinkered with form (the jump-cutting he began to use with his third feature, “Muriel,” makes that car ride out of Paris in “Breathless” look positively plain) but it was less inspired by the jazziness of the form than a process that Resnais, and Resnais, alone seemed to know was some key to unlocking deeper psychological reactions.
His 32 minute documentary “Night and Fog” from 1955 was among the first “important” films about the Holocaust. It mixed contemporary color images of the abandoned concentration camps with stock footage. It was written by camp survivor Jean Cayrol and, famously, was dubbed the greatest film ever made by Francois Truffaut.
“Night and Fog” is certainly a must-see (and easy to see—it’s streaming legally all over the place), but if you’ve been meaning to check out Resnais’ features but don’t know where to start, we’re here to guide you. We’ve selected five of Resnais’ must-see films.
“Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959)
We hate to say this, but Resnais’ first feature is his greatest. An absolutely gorgeous black and white love affair between a French woman and a Japanese man set against a peace rally at Hiroshima. A meditation on memory and heartbreak, every shot is a masterclass in mid-century modern design. The opening montage of lovers’ entwined hands mixed with ash is breathtaking even today—in 1959 it was truly, elevating cinema to a whole new level. Marguerite Duras’ poetic dialogue is no joke either.
“Last Year at Marienbad” (1961)
One of the most polarizing, puzzling films ever made, it makes “2001: A Space Odyssey” seem straightforward. Set in a spooky, ornate party (actually parties, with flash-forwards and flashbacks), Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi position themselves in the gardens and drawing rooms and have disorienting conversations about identity and truth. (The “hook” of the film, as much as there is one, is trying to figure out if these two people know one another. Hey, in French it kinda works.) There’s a parlor game involving matchsticks that we’ve never quite been able to figure out. Like ‘Hiroshima,’ every shot in this movie is art directed to the nth degree and absolutely stunning. Still, it is used as a punchline in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” to imply an insufferable night at the movies. Put bluntly, you can’t be taken seriously as a cinephile without seeing this. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to watch.
“Muriel, or the Time of Return” (1963)
We don’t want to just list Resnais’ first batch of films, so it was between this and the Algerian war-era spy drama “La Guerre est Finie.” “Muriel” gets the pick because of its specificity of time and place. A jaundiced look at at modernizing France, “Muriel” stars Delphine Seyrig as an antiques dealer preoccupied with thoughts of a love affair from before the war. The plot involves her nephew, somewhat shell-shocked after working as an interrogator in Algeria, but what really sings is Resnais’ use of interior spaces. You’d have to wait until Cronenberg’s “Shivers” to see a modern apartment building used so effectively. Also, a section in the middle uses associative jumpcuts with the ferocity of a blast of birdshot to the face. It’s as if an entire act of the film is sliced and just spread across the screen like a fan of cards. Amazingly, it still makes narrative sense. (“Je t’aime, Je t’aime” is an entire film of this technique which, in our opinion, is a tad too much.)
Resnais’ first English-language film has a playful conceit, but still exudes seriousness. John Gielgud is a struggling novelist who tinkers with his latest work. Scenes are played out before him (with various members of his family playing the roles) and as he makes adjustments the interactions take new forms. The permutations are endlessly fascinating, even if some of the overall conflicts have a bit of a “Masterpiece Theater” quality to them. Ellen Burstyn, Dirk Bogarde, Elaine Stritch and David Warner co-star.
“Private Fears in Public Places” (2006)
Was tied between this and the similarly crypto-fantasy “Wild Grass” to represent Resnais’ winter years’ output. With a primary color pallette and some gauze on the lens, this roundelay of many entwined characters is lightly comic and a little sad. The film consists of a series of short dialogues between two people at bars and offices and apartments, connected by dissolves and jaunty music. Among the plot mechanics, there’s a VHS tape lent to a religious woman that was accidentally taped over with hardcore pornography. It’s very stagey, but as you go with it, it becomes enchanting. ‘Fears’ was Resnais’ second of three adaptations of an Alan Ayckbourn play. His first is something we’re not officially listing as essential because it is, exasperatingly, impossible to find.
And that’s the 1993 Resnais flick “Smoking/No Smoking.” Ranking fourth on Cahiers du Cinema’s best of the year, this is really two films—the same film run twice with various key changes the effect the outcome. (A commonality with “Providence” to be sure.) The 300-minute diptych was written by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, who would later collaborate as writer/director/stars (with she in the directors’ chair) on “The Taste of Others, “Look at Me” and “Let’s Talk About the Rain.” This movie was a big deal in the early 90s but good luck finding a copy.
Even those who don’t like Resnais (and there are many in this camp) would agree that he frequently swung for the fences. His 1986 adaptation of the play “Melo” is a two-hour film about genius musicians with maybe 15 seconds of music in it. That’s chutzpah.
He also had his gaffes. He’s responsible for one of the most shockingly, wonderfully tone deaf movies I’ve ever seen. 1989’s “I Want To Go Home” is just a train wreck. Written by the loud New York cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer, it stars Adolf Green (of Comden and Green) obnoxiously shouting his way through France as his girlfriend, Linda Lavin, tries to get him to enjoy himself. He also has hallucinations about a cartoon cat. It features this image of Gerard Depardieu reimagined as Popeye. Vive le Cinema!
While you’re at it, watch “Night And Fog,” “Mon Oncle d’Amerique,” “Last Year At Marienbad” and “Je t’aime, Je t’aime” in full here.