After the Revolution

Revisiting the high cinematic modernism of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet
by Andrew Tracy  posted August 7, 2008
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Memory/Montage/Modernism: Alain Resnais & Alain Robbe-Grillet, Cinematheque Ontario, July 25-August 20, 2008

In aesthetics as in politics, every hard-won liberty contains its own traps. Little surprise then that the forward-looking ideals of high cinematic modernism have been largely transmuted into an eternal temps d'un retour, a nostalgic survey of victories already claimed. Films die too, after all, and some of those that most stridently announced the New have petrified noticeably. As with any revelatory experience, however, the inciting object itself is only one element among many. Those of us who have inherited certain foundational films as our birthright are living within a culture and a consciousness that those works have helped to bring about, and any complacent hindsight applied to those works can be as wrong-headed as the fevered (and often fallacious) foresight applied to those works at the time.

Thus while there's no intention here to impugn the indispensable legacy of (the still-working) Alain Resnais, there certainly is a need to historicize the strategies and devices that his three most famous feature-length works—Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963)—deployed to such influential effect. Cinematheque Ontario's pairing of new prints of some of Resnais's official classics with a sampling of some of the maudit, rarely screened directorial efforts of the late Marienbad scribe and celebrated nouveau roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet affords just such a chance, precisely because the diverging paths taken by the two necessitates an explanation—or an excuse—for the impact of their epochal one-off collaboration. Opposition, that most handy of weapons in a critic's arsenal, comes into play almost unbidden as we try to ascertain a dividing line between the two auteurs, whether in James Quandt's typically erudite program notes where "the sado-erotic, shattered glass nihilism of Robbe-Grillet's chic bibelots" clashes decisively with Resnais's "humanistic, political values" or the quickly formulated declaration of an acquaintance of mine immediately after the screening of Robbe-Grillet's first film, L'Immortelle (1963): "The difference is that Resnais is a filmmaker and Robbe-Grillet isn't."

What both of these sentiments share (outside of a certain measure of truth) is an understandable essentialism that seeks to banish the one man completely from the realm of the other, and to derive both an aesthetic and moral judgment from that separation. Yet at this late date of Resnais's period-specific canonization and Robbe-Grillet's more or less deserved marginalization, it might be more productive to investigate both their affinities and divergences at the source: at the forthrightly modernist ambitions and techniques that each made a habit of proclaiming to an uncomprehending/disdainful/rapturous world, or at least that fraction of the world that took notice of such proclamations. Where the previously en vogue cinematic "revolution"—that of Italian neorealism—had been received primarily as a revolution in content, that which Resnais and Robbe-Grillet (along with Marguerite Duras and Jean Cayrol) helped usher in was a self-conscious, even programmatic revolution in style: an extenuation, accentuation, and abstraction of both internal and external experience into a consciously heightened, rather than superficially veristic, form. While sharing with contemporary Hollywood a late-breaking fascination with psychology, the representative figures of high cinematic modernism—Bergman, Antonioni, Resnais (as per the title of Peter Cowie's zeitgeist-surfing 1963 tome)—moved it out of the realm of individual malady and made of it the most concrete and pervasive of all materialities, a common phenomenological inheritance rather than an isolatable affliction.

It is impressive even now to consider the ambitions of Resnais et al in these first three films, even distinct of their results: to cinematically replicate interior states through formal systems, to encapsulate the kaleidoscopic range of human sensations and impressions, from the most fleeting to the most profound, with a method divorced from a strict reliance upon a single character's (usually pathological) subjectivity. What is even more impressive is the speed with which the formal systems thus devised became at best self-negating, at worst clichéd. That Marienbad has remained the singular object it has throughout half a century testifies both to its ineffaceable uniqueness and its profound disconnect from any evolutionary chain of cinematic expressiveness. Its still-plangent beauty, in Sacha Vierny's exquisite cinematography, Resnais's gorgeous tracking shots, and Robbe-Grillet's studiedly enigmatic but evocative prose, is of an intensely solipsistic variety. It is the precedent of Marienbad, its deliberate and pronounced codification of arthouse mannerism, that has been absorbed into the cinematic consciousness; its existence as (fetish) object that has inspired its followers rather than any sharable aesthetic lessons contained within the text itself. And it was a precedent that both Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, in their differing ways, both ultimately distanced themselves from simply to keep working within their art rather than being borne down by their most celebrated achievement.

While Muriel has been effusively canonized as Resnais's greatest achievement, to these eyes it represents the desperate endpoint of a fixation upon technique that had outrun both its means and purpose. Unhealthily, Resnais's anxiety of influence is here directed toward his own self, to the common well of modernist tropes that he had helped to inaugurate. That Muriel, no less than Cayrol's other collaboration with Resnais, Night and Fog (1955), intertwines speculations on memory and forgetting with a charged moral context is evident; that the chilling weight and brilliant lucidity of the latter should devolve onto the extrinsic formal gamesmanship of the former, no matter its evocation of the Algerian war, is at best wishful thinking and at worst aesthetic (and political) inflation. Too often endowed with the alibi of encapsulating Resnais's supposedly omnipresent master themes, Muriel would more profitably be viewed as an attempt to render material in a manner dictated by the temper of the time. "A classic film cannot translate the real rhythm of modern life. In the same day, you do twenty-six things, you go to lectures, to the cinema, to your party meeting etc. Modern life is fragmented. Everybody feels that; painting, as well as literature [bears] witness to it, so why should the cinema not do likewise, instead of keeping to the traditional linear construction?" said Resnais. Yet the central emotional and political dilemmas of Muriel have little to do with the imperatives of this modernist project, and it is less impressive for its assertively (and selectively) disjunctive construction than for its precise rendering of relatively settled, and brilliantly embodied, character types. The ambivalence of the characters portrayed by Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kérien, Jean-Baptiste Thiérée, and Nita Klein is not granted by Resnais's formal interruptions but by the integral efforts of the actors themselves—efforts certainly not irrespective of Resnais, but fundamentally separate from his ex post facto narrative reshuffling.

The Resnais of the '60s seems increasingly trapped by the very innovations he had helped to introduce, obligated to go through these modernist motions not merely by his own inclinations but by the discursive field that had grown up around his films. Resnais, the supposed mage of time and memory was as much, if not more, a creation of Resnais's public as it was a project of the artist himself, and one should not discount the power of this feedback loop in helping to determine the shape of the films. Their enigmas and disjunctures emerged within a climate that, to some extent, had been primed to receive them: a sometimes hotly contested but more or less secure consensus about the aesthetic viability of cinematic modernism, about cinema's capability to equal the other arts. Though the formal and narrative puzzles that Resnais's first features presented were subjected, with the connivance of their director's public pronouncements, to innumerable tiresome, literal-minded probings—which unconsciously condescended to these devices as mere aesthetic frippery concealing a bedrock "truth"—they were also, in a sense, taken as read: as the lingua franca, however confusing at times, of a distinctive and genuine brand of film "art."

One can see how rapidly this consensus established itself when one considers that Robbe-Grillet's L'Immortelle received the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc before it even opened in French theaters. Superficially Marienbad-ish, L'Immortelle plays, quite entertainingly and perhaps intentionally, as a veritable parody of the obscurantist European art film: an expressionless, perpetually suited hero (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) pursues a feminine ideal (Françoise Brion) through an Orientalized Turkish port city, literally hounded by an ominous black-suited man (Guido Celano) and his pair of Dobermans. While Robbe-Grillet's playfulness, in his films as in his novels, is always of a rather self-impressed sort, it would be hard to deny that he possesses a sense of humor about the freeze-dried iconography he deploys, in this first no less than in his later, more overtly sardonic films. While the very concreteness of his prose is what allows it to slip, at first imperceptibly and then startlingly, between different planes of temporality and subjectivity, his films are locked in to the solid, inescapable bodies of his actors (often unclothed bodies, in the case of his female actors); the deliberately stiff frontality of his compositions foregrounds his characters as constructs, as arbitrary occasions for artistic display.

To see Robbe-Grillet's films parallel with Resnais's is to see two wholly different methods of dealing with shared modernist imperatives and techniques. Where Resnais gradually subsumed these into a more organic, richer, and more diffuse modernist art by incorporating them with the virtues of classical cinema—a process shakily initiated with Stavisky... (1974) and coming to real fruition with the unofficial trilogy of La Vie est un roman (1983), L'Amour à mort (1984), and most especially Mélo (1986)—Robbe-Grillet progressively bared their gratuitousness and depthlessness, thus beating a path into postmodernist laissez-faire. His third film, The Man Who Lies (1968) (the emblematic Robbe-Grillet title)-wherein an unabashedly unconvincing tale spinner descends upon a small French town, claiming to be the dear friend of a deceased Resistance hero while obsessively altering his story from one encounter to the next—decisively marks the point where the modernist urge for greater expressiveness, for a more expansive means of engaging with the world, gives way to a postmodern denial of the world. Where Marienbad sought to record how the protean nature of consciousness intertwines with and helps to shape the world, Robbe-Grillet's later efforts regard the world as only the aggregate of various self-serving fictions, where politics, history, pain, love, and death are only so many figures to be positioned rather than realities to be experienced.

The anxiety that Andrew Sarris expressed about Muriel's "chillingly materialistic vision," wherein the workings of consciousness, bidden or unbidden, completely determine external reality, would thus be fulfilled by Robbe-Grillet rather than Resnais. But as with all such visions, their climate is so chilly that not even its proponents can actually inhabit them, and thus both their intellectual and affective reach is limited by what amounts to little more than distanced, speculative shadowplay. Robbe-Grillet is at least refreshingly open about the inherent limits of his cinematic project. In his book of interviews with Anthony Fragola and Roch Smith, The Erotic Dream Machine, he exactingly details the complex intellectual genesis of his films—the pairing of Don Juan and Boris Godunov in The Man Who Lies, the Mondrian/Duchamp and Magritte/Manet mash-ups of Eden and After (1970) and La Belle Captive (1983), respectively—while cheerfully acknowledging that "the question of understanding is, in the final analysis, less important than a more direct or sensual participation." (Though he does then immediately assent to the interviewer's foolish tautology that, as life itself is enigmatic, his connivingly enigmatic films are "closer to actual experience than the typical commercial film.")

The best and most amusing moments in Robbe-Grillet's films are those where he smugly reveals his own fabricating hand, whether in Jean-Louis Trintignant's nimble performance as the ever-regenerating title character in The Man Who Lies ("I think that [it's] a funny film because Trintignant's acting is funny," Robbe-Grillet rightly noted), or the curtain-drawing epithet in Glissements progressifs du plaisir (1974) angrily thrown at the accused murderess/witch Anicée Alvina by her lawyer, Olga Georges-Picot, a dead ringer for the former's supposed victim (as she should be, portrayed as she is by the same actress): "Repetitions, doublings, patterns! I'm sick of it!" Later, a fellow inmate at the nunnery-prison to which Alvina is confined regretfully notes that it's too bad there aren't more lascivious goings-on between the keepers and prisoners in the imagined dungeons beneath the cells: "It would be entertaining for the spectators," she says, gesturing toward the camera. (And her admonition is later fulfilled when Alvina concocts and visualizes an account of nun-on-nun B&D for Jean Martin's panting priest.)

This rather heavy light-heartedness aside, Robbe-Grillet was purportedly frustrated that his own films never received the kind of serious attention granted to those of his former collaborator. The fickle winds of cinematic fashion aside, there now seems good reason to maintain this perpetual imbalance: unlike Resnais's, Robbe-Grillet's formal challenges have no urgency. The gulf between the two is not so much that between nihilism and humanism—for actual nihilism still presupposes a felt experience of the world, not simply an offhand, academic denial that that world exists—or between formal control and lack thereof, for Robbe-Grillet's stylistic choices are completely in line with his intentions. It's founded upon the simple matter of having a palpable reason to engage with formal complexity, a felt connection of that complexity with some aspect of our experience. While Resnais, even when enslaved to the most obtrusive "cerebral" effects, precisely did invite the "direct or sensual participation" that Robbe-Grillet speaks of—in the beautifully precise movements of his camera, in the faces and performances of his carefully chosen actors, in the genuine pathos underlying the formal gamesmanship even in such a pure exercise as Marienbad—the participation that Robbe-Grillet invites is neither Resnais's humanistic immersion nor a colder existential dread, but a sardonic knowingness: a wised-up disavowal of "meaning" (like the meaning that those dozens of deluded commentators attempted to find in the labyrinths of Marienbad) even as the self-consciously "intellectual" surfaces of the films overload the spectator with "meaning."

Revealing the gratuitousness of art, its fabrications and artifices, is a tradition stretching from Sterne to Brecht and beyond. But if all art, in the most fundamental reckoning, is gratuitous, Robbe-Grillet's intellectually promiscuous concoctions confuse the gratuitous with the disposable. Hiroshima, Marienbad, and Muriel may no longer possess their invigorating charge (though that certainly depends on who you ask) and their strategies have certainly dated, but to return to them is to feel, however faintly, the excitement of rediscovering the world through new prisms of art. To discover Robbe-Grillet for the first time, conversely, is simply to uncover yet another little niche of world cinema: not uninteresting, more than a little entertaining, and entirely removed from that grandness of intention that even the most jaded cinephiles secretly thrill to. 


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Courtesy The Film Reference Library
Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad
Photo Gallery: After the Revolution


February 25–March 20, 2011 Alain Resnais


Andrew Tracy is the managing editor of Cinema Scope and a contributor to Cineaste, Film Comment, and Reverse Shot.

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