Alain Resnais: Song Styrene (1958)
Alain Resnais: Song Styrene (1958) | courtesy of Icarus Films

Alain Resnais’ Short Films on Art, Plastic, and Institutional Hypnotism

Icarus Films’ recent Blu-ray of Alain Resnais ‘short films ranges from footage of artworks with poetic narration to sensual color conveyed with a wink.

Alain Resnais: Five Short Films
Alain Resnais
22 March 2022

Now on Blu-ray from Icarus Films, Alain Resnais: Five Short Films gathers four items about art and culture plus one eye-popping documentary about the manufacture of colorful plastics. All films are restored in 2K. Let’s discuss the films in chronological order.

Van Gogh (1948) is credited to Gaston Diehl and Robert Hessens, who apparently wrote and produced it, with young Resnais credited with “realisation” or directing. The next two films hail from 1949: Paul Gauguin and Guernica, the latter co-directed by Hessens. Following a chain of artistic influence without making an issue of it, all three films tell their stories entirely through footage of artworks with poetic narration.

The four shorts suffer somewhat from being in black and white. The subtle palettes of Gauguin suffer the most. Guernica suffers least, partly because much of Pablo Picasso’s work is black and white and partly because his graphic strength comes across so vividly. Van Gogh was certainly about color, yet monochrome still conveys his line and composition strongly.

Claude Dauphin’s narration on the Van Gogh film is more important than the music by Jacques Besse, as the film takes us through the familiar mythology of work, suffering, poverty, and suicide.

The Gauguin film, aggressively scored by Darius Milhaud, also emphasizes the notion that its subject died “alone” and “in poverty”, which doesn’t sound right for someone living in simple comfort with his new family. Whereas Gauguin used to be criticized for abandoning his French family and “civilization” to paint “indecent” pictures of nude women, now this irascible figure is often seen from the other side of the multi-cultural glass as a kind of “colonizer” with a “male gaze”, which can be another way of disapproving of nudity. Artists who refuse to stay in their proper place may always catch hell, but both forms of sniffery ignore or patronize the validity of Gauguin’s Tahitian family and descendants.

By the way, Paul Gauguin got incorporated into an anthology of art documentaries released in the US as Pictura: An Adventure in Art (1951), hosted by Vincent Price with narration by various stars. That’s something we’d love to see, if it still exists somewhere.

While Van Gogh won an Oscar for Best Short Film, Guernica is the most ambitiously realized of the three shorts because it’s not really about that famous painting. It’s about the historical incident that inspired it, so a wide range of Picasso’s works, including sculptures, are aligned to this anti-fascist statement during a still-ruling Fascist party in Spain. Uniting the footage is Maria Casares’ reading of “La Victoire de Guernica” (1938) by Picasso’s close friend Paul Éluard; Casares’ life had been affected by the Spanish Civil War. More than art appreciation, this film is a statement on the political relevance of art.

Not included on the disc is Resnais’ final art documentary: Statues Also Die (Les statues meurent aussi, 1953), a once-controversial critique of colonialism through the vehicle of traditional African art, as directed by Resnais, Chris Marker, and Ghislaine Cloquet.

The Blu-ray’s longest film at 21 minutes is All the World’s Memory (Toute la mémoire du monde, 1956), a commissioned pieced on the French National Library or Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Shot by Cloquet and scored in a bouncy, almost folksy manner by Maurice Jarre, whose music is conducted by Georges Delerue, this lilting film celebrates architecture, geometry, and overhead shots of how people are dwarfed in the service of the institution. It fetishizes objects like statues, cameras, comics, or communication tubes twisting through space. In other words, the film looks like a dry run for Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961), and also for the next short we’re about to mention.

Presented first on the disc but the last to be produced is the show-stopping The Song of Styrene (Le chant du Styrène, 1958), the most gloriously artistic film of industrial propaganda ever made. Resnais was hired by the Pechiney company to make a straight-up paean to that new petrochemical wonder known as plastic. We imagine they were pleased with the result.

Resnais assembled the most overqualified collaborators. Writer Raymond Queneau, fond of wordplay, wrote rhyming narration performed by actor Pierre Dux. The ravishing Eastmancolor and widescreen Dyaliscope was shot by Sacha Vierny, who would do Resnais’ most famous features before moving on to those of Peter Greenaway. Pierre Barbaud’s score is orchestrated by Georges Delerue.

The film opens with richly colorful plastic forms popping up like time-lapsed flowers. Pairs of human hands seem to spring out of the molding machinery, which creates sensual curves in more colors. A few full-form flesh-and-blood workers are seen here and there serving the modern architecture of the factory, and once we espy a line of workers crossing a space. The camera drifts through the maze of pipes and chimneys in a synthesis of Leni Riefenstahl monumentality and Busby Berkeley geometries.

Is Resnais winking at the audience with all this voluptuousness? Consider that the title emphasizes “styrene” as a “siren”, the kind that lured sailors to their doom. Consider also that ten years later, when some schlub dropped the single word “plastics” as a lucrative career choice in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967), we could smell the film’s satirical contempt wafting from the screen. The tragedy is that the schlub was right.

All five shorts on this Blu-ray were produced by Pierre Braunberger. The Blu-ray booklet includes a brief interview with Laurence Braunberger, the daughter of this maven of the French New Wave. Among the tidbits mentioned:

1. Resnais made one version of The Song of Styrene for the company and another for Braunberger. It’s their personal version that includes Queneau’s rhymes. Maybe the industrial version can be tracked down for comparison?

2. Braunberger made Van Gogh to foil a similar project proposed by Claude Autant-Lara, an anti-Semite who denounced Braunberger’s parents during the war.

3. Braunberger produced films under multiple company names, including Les Films du Panthéon, Les Films de la Pléiade and Les Films du Jeudi. “When one of his companies was in financial difficulty, he created another one so he could continue to produce films!” says his daughter.

I’ve recently observed these company names on several restorations of French films. Looking over Braunberger’s filmography, I notice he produced Marcel L’Herbier’s The Cheat (Forfaiture, 1937), a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent classic of the same name, with Sessue Hayakawa reprising his role. Let’s fetch that one out, please.