Complex and avant-garde French film director best known for Night and Fog and Last Year in Marienbad
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 an auteurist reputation. 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. Even overtly political works, Night and Fog, The War Is Over and his section of Far from Vietnam have a distance from the wars that gave rise to them. But whatever social or film history makes of Resnais in the coming decades, he ensured a permanent niche in that history through two disparate works, at least.
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. Resnais was justly criticised for omitting the hundreds of thousands of homosexuals who were also exterminated, but even this neglect cannot diminish the work’s power.
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. Resnais avoids the presumption of overt pity and through his objectivity emphasises the true horror and inhumanity of his subject. The film was awarded the Prix Jean Vigo in 1956 and remains a masterpiece, possibly his greatest work.
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. Latterly we are used to debates about censorship, blasphemy, sexual and other violence, language and drugs. Marienbad caused outrage, admiration and condemnation on style and meaning alone – quite an achievement.
Resnais was born in Vannes, Brittany, to a well-off family. This comfortable background allowed him to indulge his childhood passion for cinema, shooting elaborate works on 8mm and later 16mm film. He chose 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. He continued making shorts for a further 11 years and among these are portraits of artists, including Gauguin (1950), a study of Picasso’s Guernica (1950) and finally a sponsored short – shot in CinemaScope – about plastic, Le Chant du Styrène (1958) with a poetical commentary by Raymond Queneau. In this period he edited Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955) and was artistic supervisor on William Klein’s Broadway by Light (1958).
After this invaluable period of writing, directing and editing, Resnais felt able to make a feature and directed 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. The complex narrative, the intricate cross-cutting, the silent flashbacks, the audacious sex scenes, all contributed to the debate. As did the story of a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who – during an affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) – recalls her love for a German soldier during the second world war.
It was only slightly less of a sensation than its successor, Last Year in Marienbad, based on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s avant-garde narrative, which received the best film award at the 1961 Venice festival and made Delphine Seyrig a star in her screen debut. She subsequently starred in Resnais’ brilliantly successful Muriel (1963), receiving the best actress award at Venice that year. Although seemingly less complex than its enigmatic predecessor, the movie also concerned memory, ambiguous relationships, past and present, and had a shimmering surface and a rich soundtrack, not least by virtue of Hans Werner Henze’s music. The editing is a tour de force and there are twice as many cuts as in a conventional film of its length.
By the mid-1960s Resnais had an eminent position within the left-bank cinema movement which included artists such as Varda and Chris Marker. But his shorts and the initial trio of features – acclaimed by many as masterpieces – proved a difficult act to follow.
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, Varda and Marker among them) reflected on the tragedy of war in Far from Vietnam. His section concerns an intellectual unable to take sides in the war, and the piece strikes an intelligent, if distant, note. His next film, Je T’aime, Je T’aime (1968), was a commercial failure and has been much neglected. A love story with a characteristically complicated structure, it features a time machine in which the central character gets trapped, experiencing shifting periods in his life.
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 whose dealing nearly brought down the French government. With a cast including Charles Boyer, music by Stephen Sondheim and a stunning re-creation 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. 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. This was followed by an even more lighthearted work, Life Is a Bed of Roses (1983), again having fun at the expense of French intellectuals. There was a drastic change of mood with the sombre Love Unto Death (1984), which preceded possibly his oddest film, Mélo (1986), the fourth screen version of a 1929 theatrical melodrama by Henri Bernstein. Resnais adapted it himself and shot it in three weeks. The story, given some weight by the director, concerns a woman who kills herself as the result of a doomed love triangle. A fine cast, headed by Sabine Azéma, brilliant cinematography and the emotive story all contributed to its success.
Resnais’ next project was I Want to Go Home (1989) from a screenplay by the cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer. In 1992 he departed from narrative films to make a 60-minute television documentary about George Gershwin, whose work he had used in an early short.
None of the foregoing would have prepared us for his next project, the two feature films, Smoking/No Smoking (1993), adapted from Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges. The playwright possibly turned to Resnais’ elegant talent as a reaction to the only other screen adaptation of his work, a travesty by Michael Winner of his play A Chorus of Disapproval. However, the new work did little to enhance the reputation of either and the films largely disappeared after their Berlin film festival screenings.
It was five years later at the same festival that his film Same Old Song received its international premiere. Already a smash hit in its own country, this elegant comedy of manners used memorable French chansons – mainly from the 1930s, 40s and 50s – within the story, the actors stopping to mime excerpts from famous songs to enhance the dialogue and action, with a blend of irony and comedy. Resnais was awarded a Silver Bear at Berlin, both for the film and for “his lifetime contribution to the art of the cinema”.
The film seemed designed to appeal almost exclusively to the French and to Francophiles, and confirmed that while some of the genius of the earlier works that had so startled the movie world had been lost, Resnais could still be relied on to use great actors to provide entertainment of considerable charm.
There was a slight hiatus following that success and it was 2003 before Not on the Lips emerged with an original libretto by Andre Bard and once again using a group of stock players, headed, as so often before, by Azéma, Resnais’ wife since 1998. This light-hearted musical, set in the mid-20s, concerned a woman who – despite loving her husband – cannot resist flirtations. This and the appearance of a previous husband provokes inevitable complications. Played as a stylish farce, it fared better with some critics and a select audience rather than with an international public.
For his next work, Resnais returned to Ayckbourn with a film based on Private Fears in Public Places, originally released as Coeurs (“Hearts”, 2006) through nervousness at the prospect of an over-serious translation of the title. His familiar ensemble cast featured in this elegant love’s roundabout, in which six characters (plus a cantankerous older man) move in and out of complex interwoven short scenes. The reaction was mixed, some viewers finding it beguiling, others trivial, though most applauded its style and finesse.
Following the now established three-year gap, a Franco-Italian co-production appeared, budgeted at over €10m. The story of Wild Grass (2009) was slight: a woman’s purse is stolen, later found by a stranger and returned with ensuing complications. The dazzling surface and style found admirers, though not enough for commercial success, given the large budget.
His 50th directorial venture, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, loosely based on Jean Anouilh’s 1941 play Eurydice, and again with a star cast, was shown in competition at Cannes just before his 90th birthday. His final film, Life of Riley, was another Ayckbourn adaption and premiered at the Berlin film festival last month. By now Resnais’s ability to astound was a thing of the past, but few considered the late works negligible, unless compared with the landmark features and the classic shorts which established his fame.
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.
• Alain Resnais, film director, born 3 June 1922; died 1 March 2014.