“When people ask me why I make films, I always answer that ‘je tourne pour voir comment ça tourne,’ I make films to see how films are made. ” — Alain Resnais (x)
Last year we lost Alain Resnais, one of cinema’s most beloved, vital, and fascinating filmmakers. Having made his first short film in 1936, his work spanned nearly eighty years and continued to confound our minds and enrich our lives with each feature he put forth, culminating in his final work Life of Riley, which screened in Berlin just before his death.
With his iconic and seminal films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad to the newly revived Je t’aime Je t’aime and the beloved Wild Grass and Private Fears in Public Places, Resnais never confined himself to a single genre, giving us everything from harrowing documentaries to musicals and science fiction wonders. But no matter the narrative, his films always felt distinctly of a singular mind, one preoccupied with the abstraction and perception of memory, time, space, and human connection. Peter Cowie once noted, upon speaking of Resnais’ early life:
He also looked different from the average intellectual at the turn of the 1960s. He held himself so erect that he seemed taller than he really was. His full head of luxuriant hair was always impeccably brushed, and beneath his trademark anoraks he wore semiformal attire. This gave Resnais a detached, somewhat forbidding air, despite his old-world courtesy.
And as today would have been his 93nd birthday, let’s celebrate his life by taking a look back at some of his best work available to stream online now.
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD
Not just a defining work of the French New Wave but one of the great, lasting mysteries of modern art, Alain Resnais’ epochal Last Year at Marienbad(L’année dernière à Marienbad) has been puzzling appreciative viewers for decades. Written by radical master of the New Novel Alain Robbe-Grillet, this surreal fever dream, or nightmare, gorgeously fuses the past with the present in telling its ambiguous tale of a man and a woman (Giorgio Albertazzi and Delphine Seyrig) who may or may not have met a year ago, perhaps at the very same cathedral-like, mirror-filled château they now find themselves wandering. Unforgettable in both its confounding details (gilded ceilings, diabolical parlor games, a loaded gun) and haunting scope, Resnais’ investigation into the nature of memory is disturbing, romantic, and maybe even a ghost story. (x)
Available to watch on iTunes // See the film on 35mm at BAM this Saturday
YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHIN’ YET
Mr. Resnais, who recently turned 91, has been exploring the slippery line between truth and illusion for a very long time, in playful and in somber moods. “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” has a little of both, and is a testament to the filmmaker’s undiminished vitality. The title evokes a piece of ancient, almost mythic film history: that surreal, Orphic moment, associated in the popular mind with “The Jazz Singer,” when pictures began to talk. It also has a more primal meaning. The world and the people in it might grow old, but the imagination has the power to make everything new. And what look like artifacts of the past — literary chestnuts, archaic stories, half-forgotten recordings — are actually signs pointing toward the future. (x)
Available to watch on Netflix Instant, iTunes, and Amazon
NIGHT AND FOG
Ten years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, filmmaker Alain Resnais documented the abandoned grounds of Auschwitz. One of the first cinematic reflections on the horrors of the Holocaust, Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) contrasts the stillness of the abandoned camps’ quiet, empty buildings with haunting wartime footage. With Night and Fog, Resnais investigates the cyclical nature of man’s violence toward man and presents the unsettling suggestion that such horrors could come again. (x)
Available to watch on Hulu + and iTunes
“Wild Grass” is about an unlikely and fateful chain of events that to a young person might seem like coincidence but to an older one illustrates the likelihood that most of what happens in our lives comes about by sheer accident. This is the latest work by Alain Resnais, who may have learned this by experience: There’s a springtime in your life when you think it should add up and make sense, and an autumn when you think, the hell with it, anything can happen.
Resnais has been making films since the dawn of the New Wave: “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959) and “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961). Now he’s 88. Preparing to write, I decided not to mention his age, in fear that some readers might think a director that age couldn’t possibly be engaging. But praise must be given. “Wild Grass” is carefree and anarchic, takes bold risks, spins in unexpected directions. (x)
Available to watch on iTunes and Amazon
MON ONCLE D’AMERIQUE
The genius of the film is that even without Laborit and his rats, “Mon oncle d’Amerique” would tell an entertaining story on its own. The characters are sympathetic (given what we know about them), the narrative is well-constructed, and we care. But consider one sequence. In itself it is perfectly absorbing. Then see how Resnais deconstructs it. Jean was raised by his grandfather on an island. He tells Janine he will take her there one day. Two years after they break up, they meet by chance on the island. They cross at low tide to a little nearby island. The tide returns, but as they’re returning they pause to continue a fight, and are threatened with being stranded.
Alain Resnais was born in 1922 and as recently as May 2009 won the Special Jury prize for his new film, “Wild Grass.” At the dawn of the New Wave he gained fame for such as “Hiroshima, mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad.” He confessed once to me that he’s crazy about comic books. He makes great and sometimes weighty films but is not lacking in a quixotic humor, and “Mon oncle d’Amerique” is in some ways a comedy. Also a film that has you discussing to for long afterward, and not in the terms you use for most films.(x)
Available to watch on Hulu+