On the passing of Alain Resnais, the auteur who stayed playful to the end
When I awoke this morning to the unhappy news that Alain Resnais, the French director of "Last Year at Marienbad," "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" and "Night and Fog" among many, many others, had passed away at the age of 92, my first thought was how different the moment felt to most other announcements of veteran artists' departures -- more sorely immediate than the usual solemn, remove-your-hat mourning. Most nonagenarian directors who die do so with their life's work complete; Resnais's certainly wasn't lacking, but the man wasn't finished either.
Only three weeks ago, Resnais premiered his 19th feature, "Life of Riley," in Competition at the Berlin Film Festival to warm applause and even a couple of trophies. The jury awarded him the Alfred Bauer Prize for "a film that opens new perspectives on cinematic art" -- an award that, at first blush, seems an odd fit for one as comfortingly seasoned and familiar as Resnais, until you realize that the criteria fits the entire filmography of a filmmaker who never settled for formal complacency or consistency. How else to describe a career that broke through with a stark, intuitive 32-minute documentary about Holocaust atrocities, and ended with a pair of loopily self-reflexive, theatrically inspired comedies on the nature of performance and existence, with any number of shifts in style, shape and register in between?
Now's the time to admit that I didn't see "Life of Riley," if not by choice. Scheduling conflicts conspired against it, and the film thankfully arrived in Berlin with no pompous air of finality; here, it seemed, was the latest Alain Resnais, not the last. One thought it safe to ignore the encroaching demands of mortality and assume there'd be several more, that the spry Frenchman would chase Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira, 105-years-old-and-kicking, into the never (or whenever). I often like to imagine such artists take as a challenge Woody Allen's crack that "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying." Why not shoot for both?
By all accounts, in the unlikely event that Resnais had a final film in mind, "Life of Riley" -- his third adaptation of the work of droll, brittle British playwright Alan Ayckbourn -- wasn't it, even if it does address terminal illness. Its predecessor, the Anouilh-referencing "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet!," was advertised at its 2012 Cannes premiere as more of a false farewell, a confluence of many of the director's favorite neuroses, avenues of investigation and, of course, actors -- including his wife of the last 16 years, the wired, firework-haired Sabine Azéma. It was far from my favorite of his works, perhaps because it was so singularly his invention that I never felt fully invited into it.
At its best, however, Resnais's cinema finely walks the other side of that line -- the films are at once esoteric and intimate, like a secret you've been told in confidence. His 1959 feature-length debut, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," chronicles the end of an affair between a Japanese architect and French actress (last year's Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva, whose career was here cemented and, for so long, defined) with a spidery, non-linear structure that gradually connects this very private parting to a larger lament for Second World War victims, living and dead. Often hailed as a standard-setting work (alongside direct contemporaries "Breathless" and "The 400 Blows") of the French nouvelle vague, it had an aesthetic discipline and poetic architecture all its own. Resnais never regarded himself as a card-carrying New Wave member, though his work obviously joined that of Godard, Truffaut et al in forging the new European modernism.