On Saturday, legendary French director Alain Resnais passed away at the age of 91.
Resnais was a pioneer of French experimental filmmaking. His first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, was released the same year as the leaders of the French new wave released their career defining films; Jean Luc Godard with Breathless, and Francois Truffaut with The 400 Blows. The film sparked controversy and discussion for it’s provocative love story and innovative style – though Resnais fell in and out of the wave, deliberately avoiding the constraints and expectations involved in identifying with any particular film movement.
Resnais’ next film, Last Year at Marienbad, still confounds viewers and necessitates a second, maybe third viewing. It’s cryptic exploration of time and memory inspired David Lynch to make his highly praised (but also, rather confusing) 2001 film, Mulholland Drive. Despite the films unapologetic inaccessibility, Last Year at Marienbad won Resnais the grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Resnais began making 8mm and 16mm films in his teens, and tried his hand at acting before moving to Paris to study editing at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies or IDHEC. He left to join the armed forces during World War Two, and when he returned to Paris after the war, he began working on short documentary films.
One of these films, Night and Fog, a short documentary on the horrors of Auschwitz, was deservedly praised by Truffaut as “the greatest film ever made.” The film juxtaposes colour film of an eerily sunny Auschwitz in 1955, with black and white archival footage taken by the Nazi’s. The film has a visceral impact on the viewer, though Resnais’ method is subtle and restrained. We see the mountains of hair cut from the women to make wigs, the soap made from boiled flesh, the scratch marks in the concrete walls of the gas chambers. The images are devastating. Resnais begins and ends the film with a tracking shot along the rail line into Auschwitz; the now defunct line being reclaimed by flowers and weeds. If you are to see any of Resnais’ films, make it Night and Fog.
In a nation where the art of cinema reigns supreme, President Francois Hollande has said that with the death of Alain Resnais, France has lost one of it’s greatest film directors.