director Alain Resnais
Earlier this year, French New Wave film-maker, Alain Resnais died. Shortly after he passed away, I finally watched one of this films, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), as part of my year-long push to watch famous or important films by major directors that I’d never seen.
Much more than Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais 1959 film, Hiroshima mon amour, loomed in my cinematic psyche. Perhaps initially through the British band Ultravox and their 1977 pop single that referenced the film directly. But later, in film school, the movie was discussed in various contexts, but for my time in the classroom, never watched. I knew the essentials of the film.
It was one of the first and most influential of films that were grouped into the French New Wave. It deals with memory, a love affair between a French woman and a Japanese man, set in Hiroshima, 15 years or so since the bombing. It has a politicized sensibility but also a personal one, the setting and coming to terms with tragedy and history, both global and intensely personal and the boundaries and identities of peoples, countries, nations and individuals.
Interestingly, after watching Last Year at Marienbad before, I guess I was prepared for something even more opaque from a traditional cinema perspective. I suppose, really, it has many unique challenges and questions, from the opening shots of the lovers’ limbs entwined as they are coated with dust or dirt and then mud, like the rain of ash from the bombing of the city. Flashing to real footage to manufactured footage, recreations of the disaster, there is collision of documentary and narrative film-making in a unique and revolutionary way.
Some of the film’s innovations are harder to see as innovations today. Momentary flashes of scenes that operate as flashes of memory were apparently one of Resnais’s innovations. Like a lot of cinematic language innovations, new things become absorbed into the whole of the language and it’s often hard to realize that they were originary at some point.
The film is as much about France in WWII, the memories of the woman, flashing back to her German lover, his death, and her shame. The transgression, the significance of it all, the nature of memory, the erosion of the past.
Emmanuelle Riva is strikingly beautiful in the film. It amazed me how her visage resonated back with the image or her much older face in Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012). One love, to another, 50 years apart.
It’s an amazing film, most certainly. More than anything, I would like to see it with Last Year at Marienbad. I often think of films in pairings, for contrast, poignancy. Not at all that they need it but more how they can inform one another for the viewer. If I chance to see them again, I will try to pair them together, probably in chronology, for my own sensibilities.