(1922 - present)
Three Key Films: Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Underrated: Wild Grass (2009) proves that even well into his golden years, at age 87, Resnais is still in firm control of his distinct vision and continues to explore.
Unforgettable: Though Resnais is a respected auteur, and his work revered by cinephile audiences, he is probably the director on this list who has the most recognizable unforgettable moments, while he still remains one of the least well-known directors on this list, at least to many contemporary film-goers.
The key to Resnais is understanding that his technical bravado is not just some random gag pulled from a bag of tricks; every camera movement is purposeful, every meticulously-edited shift in time impacts the whole picture, every bit of truth dialectically mixed with fiction is meant to evoke emotion, and every word is packed with meaning. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to choose a single moment from one of his films, because literally every moment in a Resnais film is expertly-crafted and unforgettable. This is careful cinema. But in the end, if pressed, I would go with the striking long shot image of figures arranged in tableau vivant in the estate’s garden in Last Year at Marienbad. Resnais’ cutting, abstract use of shadows, the deliberate staging, and innovative sense of cinematic space all reflect the film’s fever-dream quality with a painterly black and white surrealism.
The Legend: Alain Resnais is a stylistic innovator who is rarely given his due, whose close attention to technique and politically-charged content in his own films changed modern filmmaking for the better. Playfully deconstructing key formal filmic tools—narrative, time, and space—through editing, cinematography, and mise en scene, the director is also one of the most versatile to come out of France during his tyro period. Winning an Oscar for the two-reel short film Van Gogh (1949), Resnais is most often associated with the French New Wave movement of filmmakers and contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but also fits neatly into what was dubbed the “Left Bank Group”, which boasted such luminaries as Jacques Demy, Marguerite Duras, Chris Marker, and Agnès Varda (he was the editor for Varda’s La Pointe-Courte). Resnais himself has spoken about feeling comfortable with either label.
Adding to his versatility is Resnais’ effortless blending of cinematic modes into his ouevre, with the seminal, shocking Holocaust documentary Night and Fog holding an important space in his filmography, in which both fiction and non-fiction works are informed by experimentation, memory and time. The interplay between reality and fantasy is a recurring theme for Resnais, no matter what mode he is working within. Not feeling beholden to staying within strict formal guidelines might not seem terribly important today, but in the director’s heyday, mixing these forms of cinema was considered a bold, revolutionary act, which has had direct reprecussions on how movies are constructed today, liberally mixing truth and fiction.
Though his most influential films, Night and Fog, Hiroshima, mon amour, and Last Year at Marienbad were made within a six-year span, Resnais’ dedication to challenging his own legend is evident in later films. The English-language Providence (1977), the spirited My American Uncle (1980), and later films like Smoking/No Smoking (1997), and Private Fears in Private Places (2006), are all stylistically-sound and emotionally resonant, despite the constant claim by English-language critics that his films are cold or distancing for the viewer. If anything, his technical prowess only adds humanness and warmth into the mix by insinuating that the camera, the editing and the other cinematic tools Resnais so richly employs as equally important collaborators of the people and the words. Matt Mazur