Le Chant du Styrène, 1958

A prefacing passage by author Victor Hugo provides the overarching structure for Alain Resnais’ tongue-in-cheek meditation on the ingenious creation and infinite utility of ductile and formable thermoplastics in Le Chant du Styrène: “Man is served by blind matter. He thinks, he searches, he creates. With his living breath the seeds of nature tremble as a forest rustles in the wind.” Transforming Hugo’s prefiguring ideas of nature and creation into a modern age industrial ode articulated in romantic couplet by an off-screen narrator (Pierre Dux), the film continues its effervescent, seriocomic tone with a surreal and idiosyncratic image of pseudo-genesis in an indelible montage opening sequence that subversively evokes the multilayered tone and familiar (iambic pentameter) meter of Romantic poet John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn – the images of animated, time-lapse photography of boldly colored plastic objects sprouting like inorganic seeds that have germinated from the artificial bounds of a framing mat – that culminates in a whimsically dramatic, highly stylized shot of a large, empty, red plastic bowl. Systematically tracing the origin of the morphing objects in linear regression from the extruded molds of a mechanized assembly line, to the synthesis of chemicals that produce the complex, polymeric structure of styrene through a precise and sinuous choreography of steel pipes, pressure vessels, and commercial tankers at a large, industrial plant, to the organic-based fossil fuels that are combusted to generate the derivatives and byproducts that serve as the basis for the elemental compound, the film serves as an insightful and multifaceted study in objective and filmic structure, form, and composition.

Commissioned by the Société Pechiney to illustrate the variety and versatility of their product, Le Chant du Styrène – a pun on the idea of the irresistibly entrancing, mythological Siren’s song – is a playfully carefree and deceptively facile, yet rigorously constructed and elegantly formalized exposition on creation, impartial (but engaged) observation, and the intertextuality of filmed images. Marking Resnais’ last short documentary before embarking on a career in (fictional) feature filmmaking, Le Chant du Styrène represents a stylistic convergence rather than transition from his non-fiction work, integrating the theorematic structure of logical argument and analytical deconstruction of his earlier documentaries (such as the theme of collective guilt and responsibility in Night and Fog) with the visual formalism, elaborate construction, and technical agility of his feature films (most notably in the fluid traveling shots through the baroque, architectural spaces of Last Year at Marienbad and Stavisky). It is interesting to note that the seemingly mundane and commercial subject of the film – plastic – also provides a behavioral and material correlation to a recurring Resnais theme: the malleable, inconcrete, and transformable properties of memory – an autonomic (or in the case of plastic, automated), repetitive, and adaptive process that is (literally) shaped by its external environment (note the commentary on organic sources in the manufacture of the synthetic product that also draws an implicit connection to the material’s history – and perhaps, residual memory of its organic ancestry – as an organism). It is this intrinsic nature of permanent, physical imprint that inevitably unlocks the subsequent structure of Resnais’ abstract narrative and temporally indeterminate logic puzzles: the plasticity of human memory.

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