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How the 90-Year-Old Alain Resnais Preserves the Past While Forging Into the Future in His Films

How the 90-Year-Old Alain Resnais Preserves the Past While Forging Into the Future in His Films

Any list of the oldest living directors would feature some of the medium’s finest artists. Manoel de Oliveira, at the ripe old age of 104, is still making films despite the fact that his career started before the Great Depression. With any luck, we still haven’t seen the last documentary effort from legend D.A. Pennebaker, who turns 88 later this year.

There’s one director among that company whose inclusion should come as no surprise, since he’s a man who has spent most of his career exploring our relationships with the past. Alain Resnais’ filmography is filled with titles centered on the ideas of our memories and how the process of creating films helps us share those with one another.

After a decade of directing short films, Resnais crafted what many consider to be one of his crowning achievements, 1955’s “Night and Fog,” a portrait of the horrors of World War II concentration camps. It’s here, in addressing some of the most difficult subject matter imaginable, that Resnais shows his unabiding respect for the past. The voiceover narration, guiding the audiences through the images and footage not ten years fresh in the global consciousness, is done with factual precision that doesn’t allow for oversentimentality. As a result, the technical elements on display (aided in part by the late Chris Marker, a storytelling innovator in his own right) are able to convey powerful emotion through the simplest of still photographs.

Through this historical examination, we get a reasoned, impassioned case for the film’s own existence. Resnais captures the elements of nature that persisted, largely unchanged, as atrocities were occurring in their immediate surroundings. The titular night and fog and the autumn sky seem indifferent to what’s transpired, underlining the necessity of humanity to keep what happened there in its collective memory bank.


In filming the camps as they existed during the time of the film’s production, Resnais’ camera becomes the quiet observer. The voiceover explains “we go slowly among them,” as if an increased speed would disturb the fabric of memory that now fills the empty, cavernous buildings. In a visual choice that would echo thematically through his later work, Resnais often focuses on a single item, then pulls back to reveal it as part of a seemingly endless collection of those just like it. Whether a pile of confiscated goods or a stopping point in a neverending hallway, Resnais continues to collapse the personal and the collective, melding those ideas of memory for the audience to share.

That same idea of shared experiences through film makes its grandest appearance in perhaps Resnais’ best-known work, 1959’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Written by Marguerite Duras, the film opens with an entanglement of two bodies, unnamed lovers played by Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada. Over time, that physical intertwining becomes a mental one as the two lovers relay their experiences of what happened in their lives before the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. 

READ MORE: Oscar Nominee Emmanuelle Riva Charms in 1959 Cannes Interview

The aftermath of the bombings becomes a sequence from the woman’s imagination, detailing the suffering of Japanese civilians. As she remarks later in the film, “Looking closely at things is something that has to be learned.” In “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” that second, closer look is done through a film-within-a-film in which she, a French actress, has been cast. One sequence shows “protesters” on set carrying signs decrying the worldwide proliferation of the same weapons that caused the devastation in their home nation. But there are no angry chants, no cadence-driven echoings of these same sentiments. Just as the imagined depiction of the aftermath inside a fictional narrative speaks for those who could not, the words on their signs speaks for those who Resnais purposefully excises from the frame.

When it comes time for the two lovers to seemingly part, the man wonders what set of circumstances would bring them together again. They bitterly agree that “a war” would be one possibility. But the prospect of love being frustrated reinforces the idea that what unites the pair is their common connection to history, a shared recollection of an event that both survived, but continue to be linked through.


Decades after delving into this pair of twin global tragedies, Resnais made a film grounded more in the everyday effects of how our mind remembers. “Mon oncle d’Amerique,” winner of the Jury’s Special Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, charts the stories of three individuals as a representation of the social ideas of philosopher Henri Laborit. Without getting overly didactic, these three people’s lives are introduced in three separate stages: a factual list of characteristics narrated over a series of still images, a guided tour of childhood and young adulthood, and a more traditional depiction of their lives once their stories start to interweave.

Janine, an aspiring actress, meets the married Jean after an on-stage performance, an encounter first hinted at in the opening character rundown. Eventually, their relationship turns into an affair, prompting Jean to leave his wife and family to be with Janine. Their first meeting becomes a throughline in the overall story, first in a still image in the film’s opening minutes, then depicted in real time. Towards the close of the film, when that relationship takes a downturn, Resnais stages a shouting match between the two in their shared apartment. The one piece of decoration that he constantly keeps in the frame? A poster from Janine’s original performance. Even though the two never speak of it, that visual cue evokes the reason they came together, a painful reminder of what they stand to lose if their love dissolves.

Sprinkled throughout the narrative are black and white film clips that mirror these characters’ actions. René’s efforts to become a successful businessman often give way to a wealthy man behind a desk or in a study. Janine’s dreams of becoming an actress become shadows of bygone screen icons. Through this, we see that film has the potential to be not only a mode of preserving, but one of inspiring, a way to tie together memories of what we once wanted to be.

Throughout the film’s latter third, we revisit events and occurrences that happen earlier in the story. Often these are rapidly edited together, almost too fast for us to realize that in these second and third looks, we’re literally getting a different perspective. When Janine’s mother slaps her daughter for leaving home, now we see the two evenly instead of looking over the mother’s shoulder. When René loses his temper with his daughters, we see it happen from the other side of the table. After documenting periods of adversity in the first half of the 20th century history that brought together millions of people, Resnais shows how even the most specific of family tensions carry the potential for multiple viewpoints.


In tackling what many might see on the surface as dreary subject matter, Resnais never allows those emotions to swallow the energy of his craft. There’s an undeniable vitality to what he’s depicting on-screen. Even as the devastation of atomic weaponry paints the opening act of “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” there’s an inescapable fire between the two loving strangers that’s perhaps even more palpable. One shot through the winding daytime streets of a bustling Japanese city has enough speed to pass by fellow motorists. Jean’s continued boat rides to the isolated island in “Mon oncle d’Amerique” indulge the lush surroundings, despite the frustrated relationships at center of the character’s troubles. And, even in the closing sequences of “Night and Fog,” Resnais offers that, if we don’t allow the worst of the past to slip into the “frigid and murky water, muddy like our memory,” there’s some semblance of hope.

Like some of his elderly contemporaries, Resnais’ output is still continuing, with a new feature length effort debuting at Cannes last year. “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” is slated to arrive in theaters later this year after being acquired by Kino Lorber last September. While his latest film may focus on the stage and incorporate more surreal elements, those themes of captured memories in different mediums and the collective glimpse into the past are still present. Whenever it comes, it will be yet another reminder of how we process our sense of loss, both personal and universal, and the ways we perservere in the face of it.

Through February 2013, Indiewire is taking a closer look at how the over-60 audience is served by the movies made for them as well as profiling the actors and filmmakers who are their peers. It’s part of a partnership with Heineken, which is sponsoring the “Heineken 60+ Challenge” that reaches out to the creative community to film, photograph or write their observations on the lifestyles and preferences of the 60+ age group. The goal is to help Heineken create innovative products to suit this golden generation.

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