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Alain Resnais, 1922-2014

RenaisThe French master might just be one of those directors for whom cinephiles can remember at least where and when they saw one or both of Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) or Last Year at Marienbad (1961). As well the memory of a first sighting came last year at Bologna when as part of the Chris Marker selection they showed Marker’s film of the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. In the crowd at the athletics track, in several cutaway shots, was the tall ascetic figure of Resnais.

Back in their day Hiroshima and Marienbad were distributed in these parts by the rather amazing Syd Blake of Blake Films. Syd was very canny about what treasures he brought in to service the mostly subterranean art house cinemas of Sydney and Melbourne and it usually took him time, (during which the price no doubt dropped) to bring us things we wanted to see. It should be remembered that Alain Resnais wouldn’t have ever been high on Syd’s list of priorities. Syd’s idea of an art house movie usually involved subtitled black and white movies featuring women in various stages of undress (scenes frequently removed or trimmed by the Commonwealth censor). But after being cajoled by cinema managers like Leon Boyle at the Australia in Melbourne and Phil Jones at the Gala in Sydney, Syd, and to a lesser extent Robert Kapferer, could be prevailed upon to import certified international art house hits. French and Italian movies were the main bill of fare. Anything made in France after 1959 was always billed as “the latest hit from the French New Wave”. That’s all my memory anyway.

That same memory tells me that it took Syd a while to bring in Resnais’s  first two features, but eventually he did. I had to wait until I got to university to see Hiroshima, it being classified “Suitable Only for Adults”.  But Marienbad came out in 1963 I think and created in me at least, total confusion. Some critics loved it. Sylvia Lawson in Nation was particularly enthusiastic. Colin Bennett in The Age did one of his patented what is the fuss all about numbers. Colin always felt he knew more than all those enthusiastic Brit and Yank reviewers and was particularly intolerant of Sight & Sound, Movie, Cahiers du Cinema et al. Whether he read them very thoroughly, being a busy working journalist, no one ever knew. Whatever I digress.

By the time Resnais’s third feature Muriel  came out, this time distributed with appalling languor by United Artists, I was right on board. That film still strikes me as his best, the one I have watched most frequently with the greatest pleasure and appreciation and the one which best seemed to marry that astonishing flashback and flash-forward structure that Resnais not only employed but which spread like a virus through the film-making world and became a common part of the way stories are told on film. He followed that with another masterpiece La Guerre est finie

After that, the distribution of Resnais’s films became even more haphazard and they were frequently subject to considerable vagaries of order. But I think most of his films were brought out here and distributed.  The films from the 70s continued to get shown Je t’aime, je t’aime, Stavisky, Mon Oncle D’Amerique, Life is a Novel  all had art house screenings.  I’m not sure that any one of them after Marienbad would be deemed even an art house hit.

From sometime in the 80s onwards Resnais quite consciously limited himself to films in much more minor keys – adaptations of both long ago and recent stage successes became his stock in trade and he even tried for a Dennis Potter-type musical. He used a stock company led by his wife Sabine Azema for his casts and in France they were deemed successes. In the Antipodes they often came out some time after their premieres in France. The festivals lost much enthusiasm. I cant recall a Resnais film in the Sydney Film Festival in years though I suppose some of them were in that local behemoth the French Film Festival. One suspects that the same imperatives employed by Syd Blake were still in play. Distributors and exhibitors liked the prestige of acquiring and putting on a new film by the director of Hiroshima and Marienbad but not until the price for Australian rights had fallen somewhat .

Looking at his filmography for this piece, one of the most striking features of Resnais’s work was his ability to attract collaborators of the highest order. Writers, musicians and stars all wanted to work with him and seemingly accept working on the basis of the way the director wanted to do it. Among those who submitted to the Resnais methods were, in no great order, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Hans Werner Henze, Stephen Sondheim, Jacques Sternberg, Alan Ayckbourn, Jorge Semprun, David Mercer, Dirk Bogarde, Jules Feiffer and Adolph Green. 

All up Resnais’s credits as a director amount to fifty films, of which twenty were features. Among his shorts was the extraordinary Night and Fog (1955). His last feature, the title in English being Life of Riley screened at Berlin last month and won a prize. Then he died just a week or so ago. Way to go at the age of 91. You can find most of the director’s films on DVD from America, Britain and France quite easily. Dr What's video store at Bondi Junction advises that it has the following titles Providence (on vhs), On connait la chanson (on vhs) Hiroshima mon amour (on vhs)  Coeurs (on dvd), Mon Oncle D’Amerique (on dvd) Night and Fog (on dvd), Stavisky (on dvd) and Wild Grass (on dvd). A modest collection of one of the masters and evidence that Resnais’s work could do with a full throttle replay somewhere soon.   

For now however, time to have another look at Marienbad  and Muriel to remind oneself of what screen greatness is. A couple of websites have also got some interesting stuff together here film studies blog spot and here some career highlights

HIROSHIMAPeter Hourigan writes: When Hiroshima Mon Amour was first released in Australia, your only option of seeing it was in the cinema. I had to wait for the end of my first year of University in November 1961, when it was actually given a revival season.  I’d heard and read so much about it by then – and I can still remember the feeling of disappointment.  I didn’t feel any magic or overwhelming wonder.

But I guessed it may have been me – perhaps the film I was expecting by then was not the film Resnais had made. So I made myself go back almost straight away.  Now I’d purged from my mind the film I thought I would see, and could respond to the film as it really was.  And that second viewing was just mind-blowing.  This wasn’t the kind of film you could anticipate or imagine just from reading about it. It really was so startling in its blend of present and past, history and personal experience, the universal and the private.

Since then, it has been almost a part of my whole being.  I can still hardly believe that I was asked to do an appreciation of the film for the Umbrella DVD release. And then, in 2013 I saw it again in a new, wonderful restoration at the Bologna Cinema  Ritrovato.   In the audience in the Piazza was one of Alain Resnais’ friends and colleagues from the time he made it – Agnes Varda.   What memories for her did the film evoke? 

Bruce Hodsdon writes Syd Blake benefited from being there and ready for the sixties. For many years the Savoy had been the only Sydney art house but as television closed down the three of four newsreel theatres in the city centre they reopened as art houses. Robert Kapferer was one of the first into the field in the fifties with films like Pastoral Symphony and La Ronde which actually circulated around the suburbs. I can remember the cheapest of daybills for each of these films, their very minimalism drawing attention to themselves, appearing on local suburban bill boards. I have it on good authority that Kapferer paid as little as flat fifteen hundred pounds for Oz and Kiwi rights. This meant that once the licence, print and distribution costs were recovered the entire distributor's percent of gross box office were Mr Kapferer's. These days, as you would be aware, on equivalent films, say $75,000-100,000 or often more or much more is paid as an advance on a percent split 25-50% of GBO less distribution expenses. So Kapferer made a fortune on the success of films like the above two, which drew Syd Blake into the art house business; he and Kapferer were close associates although I gather they had their differences. Blake continued to pay a flat amount of a few thousand dollars through the sixties and into the seventies and got out when this was no longer possible. 

MARIENB AD

As you rightly recall Syd was slow to acquire new films like Marienbad, I presume as part of a ploy to keep distribution rights at rock bottom prices. This meant that he could in some cases just about recover his initial outlay from his share of just one week of successful screenings on some of his lower priced acquisitions such as Jacques Rivette's La Religieuse which the Syd Uni Film Group first released very successfully for just one week in the Union Theatre at Syd Uni ( I think MUFS subsequently released it in Melbourne) after he was unable to find an art house screen for it in Sydney. He was impressed enough to suggest he could bring in other films ( I recall he mentioned Viva la Muerte) primarily for SUFG to screen on a similar basis. At that time the majors started acquiring world rights for art house films. The local offices didn't really want to know about them. Fox gave Resnais' Je t'aime, Je t'aime to SUFG  for five screenings in the Union  Theatre following the Sydney Film festival screenings. That was it's Sydney release. Ditto for films like Bande a part, Un Soir Un Train,  Model Shop, James Ivory's first film The Housholder and Robert Rossen's Lilith

Resnais' one modest local success after Hiroshima and Marienbad, was his English language feature Providence. Was it Quality Films that brought in Stavisky?