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Mixed doubles
The films of Alain Resnais at the HFA
BY CHRIS FUJIWARA

The eight films (six features and two shorts) upcoming in the Harvard Film Archiveís "Alain Resnais: Selected Films" reveal much about the directorís range ó and his consistency. Resnais remains best known for his three masterpieces about time and memory: his classic film on the Nazi death camps, "Nuit et brouillard"/"Night and Fog" (1955); his first feature, Hiroshima mon amour (1959); and its follow-up, Líannée dernière à Marienbad/Last Year at Marienbad (1961). His later work has proved a challenge to viewers reluctant to let him progress beyond those early landmarks or to see the stylistic and thematic continuity that has persisted through his diverse films.

One aspect of this continuity: the direct rendering of a fragmented subjective experience, which a protagonist, or the filmmaker himself, seeks to transcend by achieving a unified view. La guerre est finie/The War Is Over (1966; April 17 at 7 p.m.) narrates a few days in the life of Diego (Yves Montand, in a great performance), a Spanish radical who routinely risks his life to ferry revolutionary literature and other materials back and forth between France and Francoís Spain. Diego becomes aware that his generation of leftists has become outmoded in a world marked on the one hand by a pervasive lack of interest in the political and on the other by young radicalsí enthusiasm for terrorist violence. Punctuated by short shots that represent Diegoís memories and imaginings, La guerre est finie is filled with intellectual urgency and with premonitions of crisis. A moving and sometimes lyrical film, it confronts the movement of 20th-century history with mournfulness and dread ó the dread of the individual before the possibility of becoming isolated and ceasing to matter. At the same time, the film takes great momentum from Diegoís commitment to action and his quiet, reflexive search for the right response.

Stavisky . . . (1974; April 17 at 9 p.m.) resumes some of the themes of La guerre est finie. The film recounts the legend of Stavisky (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a Russian-born speculator of Jewish origins who, adopting the name Serge Alexandre, built a financial empire in entre deux guerres Europe. Resnaisís neglected masterpiece takes place in a gleaming, jewel-like landscape thatís transformed by the heroís private vision even while it remains recognizable as the great world stage of the 20th century. Stavisky himself is both the symbol of a doomed epoch and a figure of intransigent and secretive romanticism. With its superb cast (Belmondo, Charles Boyer, Annie Duperey, François Périer, Michel Lonsdale) bringing the filmís theatrical metaphor to stylized life, Stavisky . . . might have taken as its subtitle "Les statues meurent aussi" ("Statues Also Die") ó the title of Resnaisís 1950-í53 short, made in collaboration with Chris Marker and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, on the subject of African art. (The film will show on April 16 at 9 p.m., with Je tíaime, je tíaime.) "A world of rigor, . . . where each thing is in its place, . . . where creation has no limit," Africa, in this film, is also a world in which death and life coexist, familiar with each other.

This duality predominates in all Resnaisís films, which trace the doubling of life by death, of the freely willed by the predestined, of the living performance by the written text, of subjective experience by the theatrical image. Providence (1977; April 17 at 9 p.m.), his first English-language film, takes place on two narrative planes. In one, a dying novelist (John Gielgud) passes a sleepless night, his body racked with pain that he seeks to suppress with wine. The other plane is that of the story that the novelist invents and populates with figures from his real life who act out obsessive variations on the themes of betrayal and transformation that haunt him. Resnais may be the most cerebral of filmmakers, but heís also the least reasonable, except in Pascalís sense that "the heart has its reasons . . . " The lushness of Providence is wild and unruly: the visual grandeur of crane shots of spreading trees, the wordplay (courtesy of David Mercerís script), Miklós Rózsaís brooding orchestral score, and the tour de force acting by Gielgud and Dirk Bogarde all contribute to the filmís luxuriant atmosphere of defiance.

Like Providence, Resnaisís science-fiction film Je tíaime, je tíaime (1968; April 16 at 9 p.m.) puts into play a couple of parallel realities. Here, the protagonist is Claude Ridder (Claude Rich), a writer who, grief- and conscience-stricken over the death of his girlfriend, tries to commit suicide. Rescued from death, Claude is recruited as the first human subject in a time-travel experiment that has succeeded only with a mouse. The film itself becomes this experiment, as Claude relives a disconnected series of mostly short episodes from various times in his past life. In its narrative form, Je tíaime, je tíaime marks another stage in the avant-garde shattering and reconfiguration of time that had marked Líannée dernière à Marienbad and Muriel (1963). Here, the blowing apart of time results in a fragmentation that gives to each segment an equal, heightened value. There are no low points; thereís only a regular succession of peak moments, each of which crystallizes an entire thought process. Je tíaime, je tíaime is one of the great surrealist films, a non-stop, dazzling adventure in poetic language, black humor, and amour fou.

The Harvard series includes Resnaisís two most recent films, both musicals. On connaît la chanson/Same Old Song (1997; April 16 at 7 p.m.) shuffles a disparate group of Parisians together in a series of chance meetings and romantic entanglements: Camille (Agnès Jaoui), a tour guide whoís wrapping up her thesis on an obscure historical subject; an older history buff, Simon (André Dussollier), who falls in love with her but must settle for the role of sympathetic confidant as she becomes involved with slick real-estate agent Marc (Lambert Wilson); Camilleís sister, Odile (Sabine Azéma), whose marriage is in an uncertain phase; and Odileís former boyfriend, Nicolas (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a hypochondriac whose own marriage appears shaky as he goes through the motions of finding a new apartment for himself and his wife. The characters express their feelings to each other by lip-synching to snatches of classics from several decades of French popular song. What for most directors would have stayed at the level of a dubious gimmick becomes for Resnais a triumphant and enjoyable conceit. Song functions in On connaît la chanson as another of the directorís experimental doublings, overlaying the past on the present and holding up to everyday reality a defamiliarized mirror image.

The even lighting, roomy compositions, and brisk pairings-off of people in On connaît la chanson create a freedom of movement that Resnais extends in Pas sur la bouche/Not on the Lips (2003; April 15 at 9 p.m.), an adaptation of a 1925 operetta by André Barde and Maurice Yvain. This film is the double of On connaît la chanson. Once again, the story involves two sisters, one of them played by Sabine Azéma and married, once again, to a character played by Pierre Arditi; and once again, the Azéma character finds herself confronted with a past lover, in this case her previous husband (Lambert Wilson). The very slight plot hinges on the need to keep the first marriage a secret from the second husband, whose faith in his wife is based on his belief that every woman bears a permanent psychological imprint from her first real love. The theatrical mise-en-scène Resnais adopts for this project involves very long takes with much camera movement, takes that suggest an unbroken flow of space and time through which the characters, in constant movement, reveal and reinvent themselves. Pas sur la bouche may be a trifle, but rarely is a trifle brought off with such perfection.


Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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