Film director capable of wonderful insight

Alain Resnais: June 3rd, 1922 – March 1st, 2014

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 00:01

Alain Resnais, who has died aged 91, was a director of elegance and distinction who, despite generally working from the screenplays of other writers, established a reputation as an auteur .

His films were singular, instantly recognisable by their style as well as through recurring themes and preoccupations. Primary concerns were war, sexual relationships and the more abstract notions of memory and time. His characters were invariably adult (children were excluded as having no detailed past) middle-class professionals. His style was complex, notably in the editing and often, though not always, dominated by tracking shots and multilayered sound.

He surrounded himself with actors, musicians and writers of enormous talent and the result was a somewhat elitist body of work with little concern for realism or the socially or intellectually deprived.

On its release his 30-minute Night and Fog (1955) provoked the then critic François Truffaut to call it the greatest film ever made. Decades later it remains the single most important work to address the Holocaust, equalled only by Claude Lanzmann’s monumental 566-minute Shoah .


Layered work
It combines horrific archival footage by the Nazis with postwar colour images of Auschwitz. The haunted memories, the tracking shots, the juxtaposition of past and present, the elegant and distant commentary presage later works.

A contrasted claim to screen immortality rests in his second feature film, Last Year in Marienbad (1961), which had the rare distinction of causing endless debate and controversy not on grounds of content, or lack of it, but for stylistic reasons and the ambiguities of character and narrative.

Resnais was born in Vannes, Brittany, to a well-off family. He attended the French film school IDHEC, in Paris, in preference to university, but left before completing the course to join the armed forces.

After the second World War he made some self-financed shorts on 16mm and then remade one of these on 35mm. His study of Van Gogh (1948) marked his professional debut, when aged 26.

His first feature film was Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras. It became the most praised and controversial debut since Citizen Kane , winning critics awards in New York and at the Cannes film festival.

By the mid-1960s Resnais had an eminent position within the left-bank cinema movement.

The War Is Over (1966) starred Yves Montand as a weary Spanish revolutionary, resident in Paris and realising that the struggle against fascism had achieved little for his country. Montand lends the movie pathos and dignity, but it remains a wordy, didactic work.

In 1967, Resnais and six other directors (Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda and Chris Marker among them) reflected on the tragedy of war in Far from Vietnam . It was six years before Stavisky appeared, proving a welcome success not least because of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s central role as the infamous financier. With a cast including Charles Boyer, music by Stephen Sondheim and a stunning recreation of the 1930s, it returned Resnais to commercial success with what he chose to call an entertainment.

Critical esteem was rekindled in 1977 when he made his first film in English, Providence , from a mordantly witty screenplay by David Mercer and music by Miklós Rózsa. It gave John Gielgud the screen part of his career as an alcoholic writer who is basing a novel around his family. Only at a birthday lunch do we realise that the characters, notably the two sons, are monstrous fictions. The movie led its co-star Dirk Bogarde to pronounce Resnais a poet-director.


Biting satire
It also contains a statement, from the Gielgud character, that seemed a riposte to Resnais’ critics: “It’s been said about my work that the search for style has often resulted in a want of feeling. I’d put it another way. I’d say that style is feeling – in its most elegant and economic expression.”

In 1980, Resnais enjoyed his greatest commercial success with a satire on modern French life, My American Uncle . It received the grand prix at Cannes, and went on to receive six French Césars and an Academy Award nomination for Jean Gruault’s witty screenplay. Resnais’ next project was I Want to Go Home (1989) from a screenplay by the cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer.

His 50th directorial venture, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet , loosely based on Jean Anouilh’s 1941 play Eurydice , was shown in competition at Cannes just before his 90th birthday. His final film, Life of Riley , was an Alan Ayckbourn adaption and premiered in Berlin last month. He was married first to Florence Malraux, who worked as assistant director on many of his films; their marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Sabine.