In Alain Resnais, author Emma Wilson presents an incisive and comprehensive analysis of Resnais’s recurring themes of memory, plasticity, construction, and fragmentation. By placing contemporary history within the broader context of capturing internal states and subjective reality, Wilson proposes a means of reconciling Resnais’s more experimental, overtly political postwar films (through the 1960s) with his later, more hermetic and theatrical aesthetic, where the collective trauma and projected desire of his early films pave the way for the nostalgia and lyricality of his post Stavinsky work:
Resnais is fascinated by mental or subjective images, the virtual reality which makes up individual consciousness and is itself composed of both what we have known and what we have imagined. This interest in the finest workings of the mind – in the mind itself as an internal cinema where images both virtual and real coexist – calls for an extraordinary reshaping of cinema and rethinking of the capacity of film to show us reality as it is imagined, as well as lived.
Beginning with an analysis of Resnais’s short film documentaries from 1948 to 1958 – which range from such seemingly diverse subjects as artist profile (Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin) art (Guernica), culture (Les Statues meurent aussi), the Holocaust (Nuit et brouillard), the national library system (Toute la mémoire du monde), and polystyrene manufacturing (Le Chant du Styrène) – Wilson argues that the documentaries are integrally connected by the idea of (re)animation. In Guernica, the fragmentation of the painting reflects the inadequacy of representing collective trauma that foreshadows Hiroshima mon amour. In Nuit et brouillard, the juxtaposition of photographic stills with film footage creates ambiguity between life and death that, in turn, evokes the tragedy of the concentration camps. In Les Statues meurent aussi, the film is less a survey of African art than a reflection on cultural phantoms that have been lost in the face of colonialism and commercialization.
The death of statues is illustrated also in the opening images of the film where we see statues from western art, fragmented, the title seeming to refer to a Proustian sense of the friability of even hard matter, through time. In both motifs in the film, statues are rendered peculiarly animate (in particular, in Resnais’s moving shots which circle the material objects). Resnais introduces this uncanny theme of hesitation between life and death, flesh and stone, which will recur in his films as he shows ash-covered figures in Hiroshima, statues and shadows at Marienbad. In Les Statues meurent aussi, this material concern shadows the more trenchant awareness of the loss and embalming of a living civilization.
Moreover, in highlighting the symbiotic relationship between the living and inanimate in Hiroshima mon amour, Wilson introduces the idea of dislocating trauma from a specific, personal (and cultural) level towards a more amorphous, collective consciousness that runs through Resnais’s films, a theme that is also captured in her analysis of Toute la mémoire du monde :
In Toute la mémoire du monde, Resnais propagates a notion of collective memory, of a ‘mémoire universelle’. He shows, obliquely how the shots of his own films are always already familiar, part of this cultural melting-pot or memory bank. His films will recall torture scenes in Goya, the bodily horror of passages in Kafka. His will be a collaged art, glimpsed first by a wider public as he edits together Van Gogh, pursued in the editing of Guernica and Nuit et brouillard. Resnais’s response to the traumas of the twentieth-century history is particular: he recognizes the fear of forgetting, the blow dealt to memory, yet retains and refuses to relinquish the resonances of art, literature and popular culture, the fabric from which cultural memory is continually re-shaped.
In the chapter on Hiroshima mon amour, Wilson insightfully argues that the dislocation is manifested in Resnais’s films through cities that are as equally identifiable through images of iconic sites as they are interchangeable in their representations of urban spaces. In Hiroshima mon amour, the A-bomb dome is juxtaposed against the city’s rebuilt commercial district, creating parallel strands of time that mirror the protagonist’s unreconciled personal and collective memories of Nevers and Hiroshima.
Similarly, Boulogne and Algeria are also integrally connected in Muriel ou le temps d’un retour through suppressed personal and collective trauma, an intrinsic violence that Wilson proposes is revealed through Resnais’s jarring editing and soundtrack that reinforce the atrocity of the Algerian War through the film’s idiosyncratic aesthetic of “visual mutilation”.
In her essay on L’Année dernière à Marienbad, Wilson provides an insightful analysis on the implication of Resnais’s creative disagreement with screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet over his decision not to film the climactic rape sequence and instead, culminate the scene with a repeating shot of A opening her arms to X. While on the surface, the substitution radically transforms A’s station from victim to liberated woman, Wilson argues that the action is ambiguous and unsettling, implying a dark psychology more in-line with folie à deux than feminist icon:
For me, there is no liberation in L’Année dernière à Marienbad, thought here may be an act of transgression, and movement into the unknown. What is radical about the film is not the liberation of A, about which I am doubtful, but its gradual intimation that she, like the heroine of Hiroshima mon amour may seek a love which devours and deforms her, that she may be an actor and not an object in the relation that is generation by the dialogue between lovers. This is disturbing to X, disrupting his authorship, letting him be fantasized as rapist by his lover. Yet it is also, surely, disturbing to A – and to the viewers – who see her participation in a fantasy by which she is destroyed.
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