Monday, June 30, 2008

The War Isn't Over: Early Films of Resnais

In 1966, French director Alain Resnais released "The War Is Over", a title that could very well represent the ending of one chapter in his cinematic life and the beginning of another. Up until that point, Resnais was the purveyor of difficult French cinema that dealt explicitly with memory... and especially how the minds of his various men and women relate to the affects of World War 2 and The Algerian War, respectively. Yet Resnais' modus operandi was not to tackle the lingering effects of violence and war directly, but reflect the casual horror through his character's memory and their spatial displacement. With the exception of his debut film, the documentary "Night and Fog" which faced the genocide of the Holocaust head-on (and deserves a post of its own), Resnais' fiction efforts traced the lives of people going on after the war. In "Hiroshima, mon amour", a French actress visiting Hiroshima for a film initiates a one night stand with a local Japanese man, and while some of their time is spent with amour, most of it's spent remembering war atrocities. In "Muriel", even though the setting is Boulogne some ten years after the Algerian war has ended, a mother and her step-son are dealing with the traumatic impact of that war in diametrically opposed ways. And while "Last Year At Marienbad" shuttles the war altogether, it's still a watershed movie of images that continually challenges and confuses, as if it were pieced together by an Alzheimer's patient. Certain directors latch onto a theme and deconstruct this idea into dizzying proportions through the years. With Resnais, he worked out a lot of memory demons in just 5 years.

It's tough to be a "fan" of Resnais. From his own lips (on an interview added to the Criterion collection of "Hiroshima, mon amour") he derides the 'auteur' label and calls himself a filmmaker. Whether this is part of his coolly detached intellectual nouvelle vague image or the truth is suspect. If anything, one can only really "appreciate" his early films for breaking new ground in the way they smash linear storytelling and provide viewers with a stuttering succession of challenging images, deep-seated regret and a melding of time (past and present) that can never be trusted. The first film that tackled these themes, "Hiroshima, mon amour" starts out like any other fair-weather French love fest, then turns cold as its female lead, Elle (Emannuelle Riva) slowly breaks away from her Japanase lover (Eiji Okeda) and becomes swallowed up in her own tragic past. Unable to forget her war-time love affair with a German soldier, her presence in the shambled, bomb splattered Hiroshima city makes things even more unbearable. The visual consequences of the war are everywhere, and Resnais spends the first 25 minutes of "Hiroshima, mon amour" thoroughly presenting the viewer with images of deformed children, disfigured adults and radiation fallout. Memory and the past continually usurp the present, creating a suffocating atmosphere in an equally taxing environment.

In "Muriel", the war is still over, but its main characters are constantly trapped by the procession of loss and violence that singed their lives during two seperate periods of strife. A mother (Delphine Seyrig) impulsively writes to her lover (Jean-Pierre Keiren) and asks him to join her in Boulogne. He brings his now girlfriend along (much younger Martine Vatel) and oscillates between old memories with Seyrig and the pressing modern relationship of the younger woman. Likewise dealing with the trauma of war, the woman's son (Jean-Baptiste Thierre) has recently returned home from fighting in Algeria. Stiffling his experiences away in shoddy notebooks and an 8MM tape of friends during the war, we soon learn that, during the war, he was part of the torture and murder of a young girl known only as Muriel. Constantly pulling away from reality and the affections of a local girl in town (plus the man's younger girlfriend), the stepson is one of Resnais' most outward example of repressed rage. A time bomb waiting to go off, Thierre manages to encapsulate a performance that is haunting and touching. Interspersed among "Muriel's" somewhat commercial narrative, Resnais evokes odd jump cuts in conversation. Just when the characters begin to have dialogue that makes sense, he jumps to the end of the conversation and we see the older couple sitting in silence, unsure of the exact words but acutely aware of their body language. It can't be good. It's this stylistic muting of moods and ideas that Resnais works into every film. Infuriating for some, granted, but it makes for cinema that forces one to pay attention and constantly re-assess everything that happens. Just like his characters, Resnais places us in a distinct, shifting mindset that causes us to suspect the past and greet the future with timid acceptance. If anything, "Muriel" could be seen as an alternate universe sequel to "Hiroshima, mon amour". Perhaps the dead German soldier in Elle's life did live, and he shows up as the despondent war-time lover of the mother in "Muriel". Inexplicably linked by memory, anything is certainly possible in that imaginative state of mind.

Andrew Sarris wrote about "Hiroshima, mon amour": "when I first saw the movie in New York in 1960, its themes of loss and memory struck home with me because I was still mourning my dead brother. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, watching it on videocassette, I must confess that it is not quite as stylistically startling nor emotionally explosive as it was back in the early sixties. But it remains a landmark of world cinema in many ways". My own re-visiting of "Hiroshima, mon amour" as well as my initial viewing of "Muriel" exact some of the same sentiments. I can appreciate the filmic language established by Resnais in his early films, but there's an intellect that's hard to grasp. It's always difficult to make sense of his subliminal cutting, yet we want to feel its 'kinda revolutionary'. It's hip to like Resnais even when his films leave us cold. But what does translate through his challenging oeuvre is the inescapable attention to loss, regret and the mind's refusal to give up the past. That is certainly something we can all relate to, not matter how much we love or hate Resnais.

No comments: