25 September, 2009

A Film Master Walks Among Us

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

There are not too many film masters whose works have influenced the length and the breadth of the "seventh art" who are still walking among us. However, today in New York, a true living legend not only is in our midst, but is presenting his latest film, which opens the prestigious New York Film Festival later this evening.

Alain Resnais, 87 years young, is the iconic French film director who began his vaulted career in the 1950s and has continued ever since, is in New York for the premiere of WILD GRASS, an examination of love that arises from a chance encounter. One of the masters of the French "nouvelle vague" is not only back but is functioning at his prime, with a film that wowed critics and audiences at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

WILD GRASS begins with a purse snatching that opens the door to romantic adventure for Georges and Marguerite. In the simple story frame of someone losing a thing of value and someone retrieving it, Resnais comments not only on the social contracts between strangers (a common theme in his oeuvre) but the protocols of a society that must continue to learn the lessons of forgiveness and gratitude.

After training at the IDHEC in the 1940s, Resnais cut his teeth as a director with several short films, the most memorable of which, NIGHT AND FOG (1955), has become a classic of the interpretation of the Holocaust. Resnais chose to approach the subject indirectly because he felt an excess of gruesome imagery might make the events seem unreal and incomprehensible to his viewers. Instead he chose to film the empty concentration camps as they appeared in the fifties and avoided using stock footage of the actual terrors until the very end of the film. The form of the film was revolutionary at the time and has been imitated many times since.

By the late 1950s, Resnais produced a series of films that are still his most famous experiments in film form. Using innovative techniques to explore the subjectivity of memory in dealing with past violence and horror, he completed his first full-length film, HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR (1959), with a script by novelist Marguerite Duras. Emmanuelle Riva stars as a young French actress who begins a brief and unstable affair with a Japanese architect in the atmospheric rubble and reconstruction of the city of Hiroshima (site of the atomic bomb blast that effectively ended World War II). The film uses a heightened sense of existential reality and the unconscious-inflected use of flashbacks to explore her repressed memories of a German lover killed in World War II and the subsequent humiliation and captivity imposed on her by her family. This movie was a great success for Resnais, garnering him international fame and an Oscar nomination, while cementing his place in contemporary world cinema history.

While considered a charter member of the French New Wave, he never quite fit in with the more populists likes of Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Demy. His contemporary Jean-Luc Godard, whose films were as elliptical although more popular, was his true cinema confrere. While most of the French New Wavers were ardent admirers of American cinema, Resnais did not share this passion and sought a more distinctive European sensibility for the films that came next. His follow up film in 1960, the enigmatic LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD, had him collaborating with writer/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the stars of the "new novel". The film concerns a man known only as X who meets a woman named A at an old-fashioned European resort and attempts to convince her that they met there once before as lovers. Using atmospheric camerawork, dizzying editing technique and a subdued almost chilly atmosphere to tell his story, the film was considered the height of "modern" sensibility and was much admired, debated and revered in its time.

He worked regularly during the 1960s and '70s. Although not especially prolific, he has nonetheless achieved great critical success with such films as MURIEL (1963), THE WAR IS OVER (1966), STAVISKY (1974), PROVIDENCE (1977) and MON ONCLE D'AMERIQUE (1979). In the 1980s, he experienced a disappointment after the critical and box office failure of several films. With SMOKING/NO SMOKING in 1993, he once again achieved international critical and commercial success. His last film COEURS (Private Fears In Public Places) was however little seen beyond the festival circuit.

Many of his films were produced by Anatole Dauman and Argos Films, who also produced films for other Left Bank film makers such as Chris Marker. He has always been quite a literate filmmaker and has had easy and fruitful collaborations with such important literary lions as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras and the English playwright Alan Ayckbourn.

In his legendary career that spans more than 50 years, he has won many prestigious awards, including two Jean Vigo Awards for his early shorts, four Cesar Awards (for PROVIDENCE, MON ONCLE D'AMERIQUE, SMOKING/NO SMOKING and SAME OLD SONG), a Berlin FF Silver Bear for SMOKING/NO SMOKING, a BAFTA Award for HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR, Venice Film Festival prizes for HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR, I WANT TO GO HOME and PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES, and top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival for such films as MON ONCLE D'AMERIQUE and WILD GRASS. Resnais has received career achievement awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Venice Film Festival. Truly a cinema giant walks among us in New York today......

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