Alain Resnais, a cinema pioneer and a leading light of the French New Wave, died Saturday in Paris, his longtime producer and friend Jean-Louis Livi said. He was 91.
One of the most critically-aclaimed French helmers of all time, Resnais directed such arthouse masterpieces as “Hiroshima Mon Amour,”a flagship pic of the New Wave, which earned writer Marguerite Duras an Oscar nom for original screenplay in 1961, and “Last Year at Marienbad,” a major influence on such directors as David Lynch.
Resnais, who began his career with a number of art documentaries and then broke through with the gripping 1955 “Night and Fog,” about the Jewish Holocaust in WWII, was one of the more intellectually rigorous members of the new wave of filmmakers who overturned the French film industry in the late ’50s.
The French cinema world is mourning Resnais today as critics, industryites, festivals’ toppers and fans pay him homage.
“As Billy Wilder said of Lubitsch’s death, ‘No More Resnais.’ But beyond that, ‘No More Resnais Films,'” tweeted Thierry Fremaux, Cannes’ director. “He talked a lot about others’ films. He would say, ‘Making films is fine, but seeing films is even better.'”
Agnes Varda, another cinema legend whose career spans over six decades, told Variety that Resnais “taught (her) to be radical.”
“In 1954, Resnais accepted to edit my first film, “La Pointe Courte. ” I’ll never forget his punctuality, his patience and respect for my clumsy film. It’s his generosity that impressed me the most in this film adventure, where money was lacking. Alain Resnais meant a lot to me at an age where we’re still struggling to define ourselves. We shared a taste for surrealism, Italian painting and wordplay,” said Varda, whose credits include “Vagabond,” “Les glaneurs et la glaneuse” and “Les plages d’Agnes.”
France’s culture minister Aurelie Fillipetti said “Resnais’ work shone a light on French cinema throughout the world.” Fillipetti added that “Resnais’ films never gave in to trends and almost always won over audiences’ favors as much as critics.'”
Meanwhile, Gilles Jacob, who will serve his last edition as president of Cannes Film Festival this year, wrote on Twitter that “If the French State fails to organize a national funeral for this modest and model artist as Italy did for Fellini, it will be an abandonment of glory.”
Helmer had a deep relationship with the Cannes Film Festival: Among the flurry of awards he won throughout his long career, Resnais nabbed the grand jury prize in Cannes for Gerard Depardieu starrer “Mon uncle d’Amerique” in 1980 and competed in 2012 with “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” He also received a lifetime achievement honor in 2009.
Resnais, who was known as a bon vivant, maintained an active career until the end, culminating just a month ago with the Berlin Film Festival premiere of “Life of Riley” (“Aimer, boire et chanter”), an ensemble comedy of manners which marked Resnais’ third adaptation of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s work. Produced by Jean-Louis Livi and sold by Le Pacte, the film won a prize for innovation at the festival.
“We mourn a great artist and cinematic innovator, and a radical director who reminded us of the political and human atrocities of the 20th century with works such as ‘Nuit et brouillard’ (‘Night and Fog’) and ‘Hiroshima, mon amour,'” said Berlin festival topper Dieter Kosslick.
“For more than 60 years now, movie audiences have been privy to his moving-image test kitchen, where disparate stylistic and tonal collisions are par for the course, and the surprising aftertaste reliably reveals an underlying method to the apparent madness. From Resnais’ earliest films, this has entailed seeing just how far he can ostensibly push an audience away by exposing his artistic scaffolding (particularly in the radical montage techniques of films like ‘Hiroshima mon amour’ and ‘Muriel’), all the while stealthily drawing us closer in. And beginning with ‘Melo’ in 1986, this ongoing experiment has increasingly drawn on explicitly theatrical aesthetic devices to at once push and pull at the audience’s attentions,” wrote Variety’s chief film critic Scott Foundas in his review of Resnais’ “Life of Riley.”
Unlike Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville and Francois Truffaut, Resnais was less influenced by Hollywood film genres and more by literary conceits. As with another New Wave filmmaker, Eric Rohmer, Resnais’ films and images were thematically focused. Most of Resnais’ movies were about the interplay of memory on the characters’ lives, owing a debt to literary antecedents such as Marcel Proust and the philosopher Henri Bergson. Whereas Rohmer was narratively direct, Resnais was boldly experimental in telling his stories in nonlinear fashion, overlapping time and images.
While his first few movies, such as “Hiroshima,” were international arthouse sensations, his later films, such as “Smoking/No Smoking,” received sparse distribution abroad.
He was born June 3, 1922 in the town of Vannes and was already making 8mm films in his teens, including a teen version of “Fantomas.” He originally studied acting and stagecraft before moving on, in his mid-20s, at the IDHEC French film school to study editing. After serving in the war, he began making short 16mm art films about such painters as Hans Hartung, Max Ernst, Felix Labisse and Lucien Coutard, some of which were shown on early French television. His first fictional film, 1945’s “Schema d’une identification,” starred Gerard Philipe.
He brought Marguerite Duras’ script “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” to the screen as his first full-length feature in 1959. The film sought to reconcile memories of the nuclear attack on Japan in 1945 and was a sensation in a year that also produced such Gallic masterpieces as Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Godard’s “Breathless.” In 1961, he broke down the narrative structure even further with “Last Year at Marienbad,” from a script by Alain Robbe-Grillet. The stylish romantic thriller won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival and became a major influence on a generation of filmmakers looking for alternative ways to tell their stories.
The 1963 film “Muriel” also broke down its narrative, though his Prix Delluc winner, 1966’s Yves Montand starrer “La Guerre est finie,” is a straightforward and shattering reminiscence on the effects of the Spanish Civil War.
Resnais’ next film, “Je t’aime, je t’aime,” proved a financial setback and hampered his ability to raise funding for several years. When he returned it was with the conventional gangster story “Stavisky” (1974), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Three years later, he worked in English for the first time with “Providence,” a contemplation on the creative process featuring John Gielgud’s most satisfying screen performance.
Except for 1983’s “Mon oncle d’Amerique,” Resnais’ films of the ’80s and ’90s, such as “Life Is a Bed of Roses,” “Love Unto Death” (all three of which were written by Jean Gruault), “Melo” and “I Want to Go Home” rarely saw wide release outside France, where his stature as a filmmaker remained largely intact. His 1993 duet “Smoking/No Smoking” consisted of two complementary, stand-alone features adapted from Alan Ayckbourn’s play “Intimate Strangers.”
Resnais scored greater attention with 1997’s “Same Old Song,” a musical comedy written (like “Smoking/No Smoking”) by the husband-and-wife team of Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui, who also appeared in the film. The helmer delivered another tuner with 2003’s “Not on the Lips,” a playful romp better appreciated at home than abroad, then returned to Ayckbourn with the well-received “Private Fears in Public Places” (2006), a Parisian take on the play of the same title.
Three years later, Resnais made a significant return to international prominence with “Wild Grass,” a surreal, disorienting tale of l’amour fou adapted from Christian Gailly’s novel “L’incident.” Starring two of his longtime regulars, Andre Dussollier and Sabine Azema, the film was hailed as a late masterpiece by some critics and dismissed as confounding by others when it premiered at the 2009 Cannes fest, where Resnais received a lifetime achievement award.
(Richard Natale contributed to this report)