Alain Resnais is one of cinema’s great originals whose mastery of technique has been put at the service of some of the most thought-provoking and inspired films ever made. Influenced in his youth by comic-books and surrealism, he began his career with a series of remarkable documentaries, including most famously, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), once described by Francois Truffaut as “the greatest film ever made.”
Resnais’ transition to narrative feature films proved an immediate success; his first two films, Hiroshima mon amour and L’Année dernière à Marienbad, winning over international audiences despite their non-linear narratives and lack of exposition. In these early films and those that followed Resnais used the medium of cinema brilliantly to explore the effects of time, memory and the imagination on human consciousness. From the 1980s onwards, Resnais has drawn on music and theatre as an inspiration, working repeatedly with a core group of actors comprising Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi and André Dussollier on such films as Mélo (1986), Smoking, No Smoking (1993), and Coeurs (2006).
Perhaps more than any other director of the French New Wave, Resnais’ films require more than one viewing before they can be thoroughly understood and emotionally appreciated.
L’Amour à mort
(Love Unto Death, 1984)
Resnais explores whether love is stronger than death in this haunting story of an archaeologist (Pierre Arditi) who miraculously comes back to life after a fatal seizure, only to become obsessed with the afterlife he briefly glimpsed. Sabine Azéma gives a moving performance as his lover Elizabeth who determines to be with him no matter what, despite the protestations of concerned friends Judith and Jérome (Fanny Ardant and André Dussollier).
Toute la mémoire du monde
(All the Memory of the World, 1956)
An atmospheric documentary about Paris’s labyrinthian Bibliothèque Nationale that draws parallels between the operation of this repository of 6 million books and the workings of the human mind. Stunning tracking shots of cavernous settings and a foreboding voice over create an ominous mood that anticipates L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year At Marienbad, 1961).
On connait les chansons
(Same Old Song, 1997)
Resnais scored his biggest ever commercial hit in France with this charming romantic comedy about the interconnected lives of a group of Parisians. Throughout the film characters break into classic French songs to express their innermost feelings. Winner of seven César awards.
Nuit et brouillard
(Night and Fog, 1955)
A landmark documentary that was one of the first and still remains one of the most powerful cinematic depictions of the Holocaust. Jean Cayrol’s eloquent narration bears witness to what occurred over contrasting scenes of the abandoned concentration camps ten years after the liberation and shocking wartime footage taken at the time.
La Guerre est finie
(The War is Over, 1966)
Yves Montand, in perhaps his finest performance, plays a world-weary Spanish revolutionary caught up in the clandestine world of underground political struggle, while at the same time reflecting on the meaning of his life. A powerful portrait of a man’s quixotic commitment to an all-consuming belief.
Over the course of one drunken, tormented night, dying writer Clive Langham (John Gielgud) lies in bed and dreams up narratives using his family as prototypes for the characters. A strange, complex, sometimes hilarious exploration of the creative process in which nothing can be taken at face value and everything is open to interpretation.
Hiroshima mon amour
Over fifty years after its first release, Resnais’ debut feature still feels like a work of striking originality. Set in the city of the title, the film tells the story of a brief affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect, both of whom are haunted by events that took place years before during the war.
Cinema’s greatest unsolved puzzle takes place amidst a sophisticated social gathering in a sumptuously decorated grand hotel where a stranger wanders from corridor to room to garden in pursuit of a woman with whom, he claims, he was once intimate. But is he telling the truth or does he have darker motives? And what really happened last year at Marienbad? Resnais’ enigmatic masterpiece keeps us guessing.
Delphine Seyrig gives an award-winning performance as Helene, an antiques dealer in Boulogne, whose attempt to conjure up her past by inviting an ex-lover to stay causes conflict with her stepson Bernard, a young man tormented by his participation in a war crime in Algeria. A fascinating, multi-layered study of the relationship between the way things are remembered and the way they really are.
Je t’aime, je t’aime
A suicidal man (Claude Rich) is chosen by a team of scientists to test their time machine. A malfunction traps him in his past where he is forced to relive a succession of his own fragmented and eventually tragic memories. Resnais’ ultimate exploration of time, memory, and the imagination is not only one of the most experimental mainstream feature films ever made but also one of the most moving.