From the archive
Barring only the octogenarian Robert Bresson, who may never shoot again, Resnais is incontestably the greatest living French filmmaker, and quite possibly the French director who has been most frequently and unjustly maligned in this country. Despite the fact that he has substantially revised his form and style for each of his eleven features to date, working with a total of eight separate writers, his films share an emotional purity, a visual elegance, and a rhythmic grace that together constitute a recognizable signature. And his central preoccupations — memory, loss, love, death, and desire — have remained more or less constant. The problems he has posed for American aesthetes appear to have been equally constant.
The standard (and unwarranted) objection to Resnais in this country — that he’s all form and no content, or, alternately, all technique and no feeling — can be heard from many of his alleged defenders as well as many of his overt attackers. “Resnais knows all about beauty,” Susan Sontag conceded at the end of her 1963 review of MURIEL, his third feature. “But his films lack tonicity and vigor, directness of address. They are cautious, somehow, overburdened and synthetic. They do not go to the end, either of the idea or of the emotion which inspires them, which all great art must do.”
Twenty-five years later, although one can certainly single out Resnais features that are flawed (JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME, L’AMOUR A MORT) or relatively minor (STAVISKY, LA VIE EST UN ROMAN) or both (LA GUERRE EST FINIE), only two of Sontag’s complaints seem to hold up: Resnais’ films are all synthetic, and they lack directness of address. The same could be said for the collected fiction of Henry James, William Faulkner, and Jorge Luis Borges.
Actually, I think what bothers many American critics about Resnais is that he scares and confuses them: LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD has got to be one of the scariest and most confusing movies ever made, and many have never forgiven Resnais (and Alain Robbe-Grillet, his scriptwriter) for the radical upset it caused here in the early 1960s. The fact that Resnais tells stories and experiments with form expels him from the avant-garde and mainstream alike. He’s an avid fan of “Dick Tracy” and Stephen Sondheim, but intimidated Americans have wrongly made him out to be some forbidding kind of French intellectual. Maybe what they can’t stand is his delicacy: “Even at its best,” writes a smirking capsule writer in The New Yorker, “MELO isn’t much more than a classy dinner-theatre production — without the dinner.” The pregnant pause in that leaden one-liner, with its scantily covered guffaw showing through, is the opposite of the finesse that Resnais brings to his smallest gestures as a director. But French artists who can be funny without farting are not likely to make it onto videocassette, and classy dinner-theater with the dinner (e.g., MY DINNER WITH ANDRE) is more in line with The New Yorker’s taste.