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Alain Resnais: From Marienbad to the Bronx

By Phil Patton and Sharon Shurts

THE NAME OF ALAIN RESNAIS, for students of modern film, brings to mind a host of intense and often bewildering experiences: a pursuit through the lavish and sterile baroque corridors of Marienbad, where men are frozen and statues take on life; the impossible embrace, across space and time, of Hiroshima and Nevers, France; the horrifying images of Nazi concentration camps, piercing the "night and fog" of our forgetfulness.

The impact of Resnais's films, the strength and innovation of their style, suggests the romanticized image of the forceful and eccentric creator-director, a la Godard or Bergman. In fact, Resnais unpretentiously claims a much lesser role for himself in the making of a film. During his visit to Harvard the last week in March, as a guest of Mather House, Dunster House, and Carpenter Center, Resnais spoke of the practical limits and hazards of film direction. He conveyed a shy elegance, and graceful composure reminiscent of his days as an actor. In speaking, his characteristic gesture is a smiling shrug: filmmaking is a chancy game; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

How you play, it seems, matters more than winning--or persuading. Though films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Night and Fog have explicitly political backgrounds. Resnais denies that he has ever intentionally made a political film: "I just let things happen . . . . If the script is political, then all the better. But I have never tried to convert anyone."

In the early fifties, his short Les Statues Meurent Aussi was banned by the French Censor and eventually released only after a third of its footage had been cut. Commissioned by Presence Africaine, a black group inside France, and dealing with the effect of European colonization on African art, the film struck the French government as an attack on colonialism. Says Resnais: "Some people think movies can be very dangerous. I don't think so. I don't think movies can change the world just like that."

Resnais has not made a film since Je T'aime, Je T'aime in 1968. Still seeking a producer for his next film. Resnais claims to have the feeling, sometimes, that he is doing nothing now. However, finding the right writer and producer is an important stage in the making of a film, and at least Resnais now has a writer.

Last year in New York Resnais met Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman and the Fantastic Four comics. They had dinner together and Resnais, a comic book collector and connoisseur since childhood, was delighted. "I had read everything he had written for the last ten years. I was totally hooked, and I was surprised to find that the writer was such a lovable person. He told me that he has written more than 7000 stories, and would like to try something else."

What emerged was a script for a film to be called The Inmates. The setting was to be the Bronx, which, Resnais says, has for the Frenchman all the attraction of the exotic. Then the problems began. Resnais went to producers and offered to shoot the script for a million dollars. No, they said, to do it right you would have to go to Japan for special effects and spend three million: for a million it would only be an "intellectual" film. Now a second script by Stan Lee also seems doubtful of acceptance by American producers, and Resnais speculates on the irony that he may end up shooting The Inmates in a mock-up of the Bronx in Yugoslavia.

ACOLLABORATION of Alain Resnais and Stan Lee, if it is ever realized, may well be a combination as significant and as perfect as that, eleven years ago, of Resnais and the French author Alain Robbe-Grillet, in the creation of Last Year at Marienbad. Filmmaking, of course, has always made strange bedfellows: as different as the American father of Spiderman is from the French creator of the "nouveau roman", and as different as both of these are from the novelist Marguerite Duras, who wrote the script for Hiroshima Mon Amour. Resnais has affinities with all three.

Although Resnais has never written a work of script or dialogue, he insists on a creative working relationship with his writers. Resnais never worked from a novel--an already complete form in itself--although, as he points out, it is easier to get financial backing for such projects. He prefers working together with a writer in the very conception of a film, the birth of its characters and its story, thus bringing the visual and verbal together from the very beginning.

Last Year at Marienbad was the paramount example of this ideal director-writer relationship. Oddly enough, Resnais did not know Robbe-Grillet, and had read none of his books, before the producer suggested they try working together. Within a week after their first meeting, where they "agreed about everything," Resnais had read all of Robbe-Grillet's novels, and Robbe-Grillet had submitted four possible script projects. The writer and the director discovered themselves in each other's work: "I felt," explains Resnais, "that we had already made a film together." In the work on Marienbad which followed, visual and verbal conception seemed perfectly meshed, despite the fact that the writing was entirely separate from the actual filming.

In light of Resnais's lifelong adoration of the comics, his work with Stan Lee may be an equally interesting match, though of a decidedly different tone. The comics have been an avowed influence on Resnais's earlier works; he mentions specifically how, in Muriel, they inspired the overlapping of dialogue belonging to one scene with action of another, and how the action on Marienbad had some resemblance to Phil Davis's Mandrake the Magician.

More generally, comics encourage a non-linear, non-chronological kind of reading, a sense of the story as being all-present. In this way, comics are a possible source for the single most remarkable characteristic of Resnais's style--the handling of time.

But there are even more obvious sources for this facet of Resnais's direction. A film such as Marienbad calls to mind the subjective chronology of twentieth century experimental fiction. As in the novels of Robbe-Grillet, there is no progress; the past exists only as a conjecture, and the present only as a dream. The same event, with minor variations, is constantly recurring, ending in a number of ambiguously false denouements.

Although Resnais admits to no conscious influence of Proust, the perpetual presence of memory is unmistakably Proustian. Even in as realistic a film as La Guerre est Finie, flashes into the past and future become part of the hero's present reality. No less significantly, Resnais recalls how--scarcely pausing to eat--he read all of Remembrance of Things Past in ten intense days.

THROUGH FILM, however, Resnais can create experiences unattainable by his literary forbears. As in Marienbad, he can stop human time, by freezing motion, while, through the exploring action of the camera, he can make inanimate objects come alive. In both Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, there is a peculiar juxtaposition of an ongoing text with the filmed image. The text is the dialogue of a man and woman. Simultaneously with this text, instead of the objective reality of their faces, we see the images in their minds--a cellar in Nevers, maimed victims of Hiroshima, or the gardens of Marienbad--all arranged in the subjective order of memory or of dream.

For all his technical innovation, Resnais is candid about his debt to earlier directors: "You have to realize that you can't make something totally new. I never thought I made a big break from other directors." He sees his own work in specific context. The two intersecting times of Hiroshima Mon Amour, admits Resnais, owe much to Griffith's Intolerance.

Elsewhere, Resnais has made more subtle acknowledgments. Suggesting his debt to the comics, he lists "Fearless Fosdick" in the credits of one film. Alfred Hitchcock, a hero of Resnais's, appears in Marienbad in an almost unnoticeable private joke: "We made a tribute to Hitchcock by putting his photographic silhouette in the hotel in Marienbad, waiting for an elevator which, of course, never comes."

When he views films himself, Resnais claims, he forgets about being a director. "I'm a movie buff. I like films where I can feel the style of a director come through." He lists the directors he enjoys: Renoir, Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Bunuel . . . on and on, a whole canon of modern film.

One director who does not receive Resnais's unreserved admiration is Stanley Kubrick. He does praise Kubrick's ability to answer the critics and his technical accomplishment. "But I can't understand why I don't enjoy Clockwork Orange more at the end. I was not fulfilled. I think he could use more speed . . . . I would like sometime to edit him."

RESNAIS'S HUMILITY in speaking of other directors or of his own work is neither sham nor evasion. It is part of Resnais's larger awareness of the complex nature of his role. The director's control is inevitably incomplete: "All of my films have been chosen by cir-cumstances, in a way." Resnais is less of an originator than an executor of film. Film is an art of collaboration, and the director is but one of the collaborators.

But the way that Resnais submits to circumstances does not deny him creativity. The ultimate task of bringing verbal and visual--script and camera--together into the final experience of film, is still the director's. With the force of an individual sensibility, Resnais can transcend circumstances and synthesize influences. He makes films which are uniquely his, while preserving the individuality of each script.

Thus, although Resnais's own fascination with time pervades all his films, its handling varies according to the conception of the different script writers. Time in Hiroshima has the source of its order in the psychology of the main characters, whereas in Robbe-Grillet's Marienbad the order of time is more metaphysical than personal. Unlike either, Jorge Semprun's script for La Guerre est Finie demanded greater conventionality of form, with a focus on social reality rather than metaphysical complexity. In his treatment of time, then, Resnais peculiarly mixes continuity and flexibility.

At the root of Resnais's work lies neither a political persuasion nor a personal metaphysic, but a way of seeing. For Resnais, images, rather than thoughts, are the true domain of the director. His professed desire is disarmingly simple: "I love to make beautiful images. The more I get older the more I think beauty is important after all.

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