Alain Resnais

Emma Wilson,
Alain Resnais.
Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006.
ISBN: 0 7190 6406 6
£40.00 (hb)

Marja Warehime,
Maurice Pialat,
Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006.
ISBN: 0 7190 6822 3
£40.00 (hb)
(Review copies supplied by Manchester University Press)

When I reviewed Alison Smith’s Agnès Varda, an earlier volume in this series on French Film Directors, I noted that the editors were clearly self-conscious about initiating what might be seen as yet another standard auteurist series focusing on the creative genius of individual film-makers. This, they asserted was not at all their aim:

the auteur perspective …will be interrogated in certain volumes of the series, and, throughout, the director will be treated as one highly significant element in a complex process of film production and reception which includes socio-economic and political determinants, the work of a large and highly skilled team of artists and technicians, the mechanisms of production and distribution, and the complex and multiply determined responses of spectators.

While praising Ms Smith’s study I ventured to question the depth of commitment of the editors to these admirable principles. The same doubts could be expressed about Ms Wilson’s study of the films of Alain Resnais, though again this does not call into question its qualities as an auteurist study. Indeed,it could be argued that the editors’ remarks are addressed primarily to critics rather than potential readers, and any book sold these days under a director’s name would be failing in its implicit contract with the buying public if it did not in some way and to some extent mobilize the standard auteurist tropes, whatever else it may do in addition. Thus both these works assume the centrality of the director’s intentions, the relevance of autobiography to the films’ themes, the distinctive and wayward nature of the artistic personality which will result in a break with convention and a difficult film style, and the consequent importance of the critic as interpreter. Both also treat the films in chronological order, though Ms Wilson acknowledges the incongruousness of treating thus the works of a director like Resnais, for whom temporal disruption and experimentation was always central.

Because auteurist critics see all the director’s work as expressing his personal preoccupations, he must be to some degree always re-making the same film over and over; so a significant danger in any work such as these is the repetition that inevitably results as each film and each chapter record the “recurring motifs” of the oeuvre (Wilson), its “formal and thematic coherence” (Warehime). Thus Ms Wilson returns time and again to trauma and memory, the physicality of the senses and the “crystalline” patterning of Resnais’s films, making sometimes desperate attempts to tie everything back to these themes, while Ms Warehime returns to the family as a thematic centre, and particularly to father-son relationships. Ms Warehime, however, adopts a procedure which minimizes this problem, by providing a series of introductory chapters that summarise these recurring patterns; she thus avoids the necessity to spell them out at any length when they return later. In this she resembles to some extent Ms Smith on Agnès Varda, who devoted her chapters not to successive chronological accounts of the films but to the four central groups of themes to be found in those films. This was a brave and, I think, successful procedure.

In both the present cases the treatment of individual films is chronological, but the autobiographical connections are made at much greater length in the Pialat volume. In part this is because Ms Wilson acknowledges having had trouble finding relevant material in the admittedly sparse accounts of Resnais’ life, though more material is available than she provides. Ms Warehime does an excellent job of relating Pialat’s personality and autobiography to the material found in his films, helped by a series of interviews that focus primarily on that topic.

She does a very good job also of situating Pialat’s production within the institutional conditions of the time, and as a response to, or reaction against, various aspects of previous cinema history. Her remarks on these matters – Pialat’s attitude towards the New Wave, classic directors such as Carné, Renoir and Pagnol, the cinéma du samedi soir, and the various stylistic traditions within which Pialat saw himself as working or not working – are described confidently and reliably. She has a useful acquaintance with film history. Her appreciation of film theory is likewise considerably more sophisticated than in the Resnais book, where the introductory chapter purports to deal with theory but in fact gestures slightly incoherently in a few disparate directions. In general, in my view, the Resnais study is too easily impressed by the more diffuse and mystical of commentators on his films. It avoids simple statements wherever possible. The Pialat book gives the contrary impression, of struggling to formulate difficult material as clearly as possible. There can be few higher forms of praise.

A further advantage of the book on Pialat is that each film is introduced by a section dealing with the origins of the film idea, and with the problems posed by Pialat’s attempts to get it to the stage of production. What results is a useful account of the institutional constraints governing what could and could not be produced at a given moment, and the specific factors which came together to permit the production of that film, in that form, at that time. This is a useful gesture in one direction that the editors suggest, namely qualifying the all-importance of the individual’s controlling personality and intentions. No equivalent is to be found in the book on Resnais, though there was plenty of scope for it.

Neither of the two studies deals at any length with reception, with spectators’ responses to the films. The study of Resnais does, however, deal at excessive length with the responses of every critic and commentator to every aspect of these films. Indeed at times the chapters read like an elaborate assemblage of everything that has ever been said about the films (with references), and it comes as a slight shock when the author proposes some comment or interpretation of her own. This is excessive deferment to prior critics, and makes for a very clumsy read. Chapters on specific films lose any coherence as an interpretation and become mosaics of topics that other critics have proposed as relevant to that film. The book on Pialat has no such problem, if only perhaps because so few extended commentaries exist on Pialat’s work. The sections on specific films come across therefore as more personally considered and more coherent readings of the films. In the study of Resnais it is the chapter on L’Année dernière à Marienbad (France/Italy 1961) that reads most forcefully, though even there I would have liked to see more space given to the notion of the film as play and as provocation. The accounts of Providence (France/Switzerland 1977) and Smoking/No Smoking (France 1993) are also useful, and make one want to see them/see them again.

Both books offer a mass of interesting material on their film-makers, but it is probably apparent by now that I think the book on Pialat is notably superior to that on Resnais. It consistently offers intelligent and subtle observations on the films and their origins, and perceptive comments on the structure and style of the films. Those of Pialat’s films that I have not seen (and there are several that were not widely screened) are now high on my list of desired viewing as a result of Ms Warehime’s advocacy.

Colin Crisp

Created on: Monday, 20 November 2006