All the noise around last night’s Oscars shouldn’t distract from the passing of one of cinema’s true greats yesterday: the 91-year-old French director Alain Resnais. This Frenchman shook the foundations of cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when his filmmaking contemporaries and compatriots, including Jean-Luc Godard, were making a habit of doing the same.
First there was 1955’s ‘Night and Fog’, his concise, unblinking documentary, barely more than 30 minutes long, on the Holocaust, and then in 1961, following 1959’s ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’, came ‘Last Year in Marienbad’, a surreal headscratcher that tore up the rules of storytelling (see Resnais above on the set of the film with actress Delphine Seyrig).
I remember seeing ‘Marienbad’ as a student in the 1990s – being confused and confounded – and never seeing cinema in the same way again. Resnais remained a force through the decades and continued to work to the end. His new film, ‘Life of Riley’, showed at the Berlin Film Festival only last month. I’ll confess that this stage-bound Alan Ayckbourn adaptation (his fourth) wasn’t entirely for me – and yet the curiosity of this radical French director’s embrace of this safe British playwright played long in the mind. How strange to see French actors essaying quintessentially English characters and scenarios, in French and on a lurid, consciously theatrical set. How odd to see the camera float down Yorkshire lanes like an opening to a live-action version of ‘Postman Pat’.
As many were quick to point out yesterday on social media, Berlin International Film Festival gave Resnais its innovation award last month for what turned out to be his final work. To be honoured for breaking new ground at 91, on the eve of your passing, is an enviable epitaph. Dave Calhoun