Susan Sontag on Muriel --- a good review of Resnais technique

Recently, I came across an article written by Susan Sontag which might serve as a good review of Resnais' techniques.

For all this complexity, Resnais conscientiously avoids direct narration. He gives us a chain of short scenes, horizontal in emotional tone, which focus on selected undramatic moments in the lives of the four main characters…Muriel, like Marienbad, should not puzzle, because there is nothing “behind” the lean, staccato statements that one sees. They can’t be deciphered, because they don’t say more than they say. It is rather as if Resnais had taken a story, which could be told quite straightforwardly, and cut it against the grain…it is Resnais’ way of making a realistic story over into an examination of the form of emotions.

Thus, although the story is not difficult to follow, Resnais’ techniques for telling it deliberately estrange the viewer from the story. Most conspicuous of these techniques is his elliptical, off-center conception of a scene…Resnais denies the viewer a chance to orient himself visually in traditional story terms. We are shown a hand on the doorknob, the vacant insincere smile of the client, a coffee pot boiling. The way the scenes are photographed and edited decomposes, rather than explains, the story…In Resnais’ films, all speech, including dialogue, tends to become narration --- to hover over the visible action, rather than to issue directly from it.

The extremely rapid cutting of Muriel is unlike the jumpy, jazzy cutting of Godard in Breathless and Vivre Sa Vie. Godard’s abrupt cutting pulls the viewer into the story, makes him restless and heightens his appetite for action, creating a kind of visual suspense. When Resnais cuts abruptly, he pulls the viewer away from the story. His cutting acts as a brake on the narrative, a kind of aesthetic undertow, a sort of filmic alienation effect. 234-235

Interestingly, the same can be said to Bresson, which Sontag has no hesitation to praise to sky-high.

Resnais’ use of speech has a similar “alienating” effect on the viewer’s feelings. Because his main characters have something not only benumbed but positively hopeless about them, their words are never emotionally moving. Speaking in a Resnais film is typically an occasion of frustration – whether it is the trance-like recitation of the incommunicable distress of an event in the past; or the truncated, distracted words his characters address to each other in the present. (Because of the frustrations of speech, eyes have great authority in Resnais’ films. A standard dramatic moment, insofar as he allows such a thing, is a few banal words followed by silence and a look.) Happily, there is nothing in Muriel of the insufferable incantatory style of the dialogue of Hiroshima and the narration of Marienbad. Apart from a few stark, unanswered questions, the characters in Muriel mostly speak in dull, evasive phrases, especially when they are very unhappy. But the firm prosiness of the dialogue in Muriel is not intended to mean anything different from the awful poetizing of the earlier two long films. Resnais proposes the same subject in all his films. All his films are about the inexpressible. (The main topics which are inexpressible are two: guilt and erotic longing.) And the twin notion to inexpressibility is banality. In high art, banality is the modesty of the inexpressible. 236

Resnais’ techniques, despite the visual brilliance of his films, seem to me to owe more to literature than to the tradition of the cinema as such. Most literary of all is Resnais’ formalism. Formalism itself is not literary. But to appropriate a complex and specific narrative in order deliberately to obscure it --- to write an abstract text on top of it, as it were --- is a very literary procedure.

There is a story in Muriel… but Muriel is designed so that, at any given moment of it, it’s not about anything at all. At any given moment it is a formal composition; and it is to this end that individual scenes are shaped so obliquely, the time sequence scrambled, and dialogue kept to a minimum of informativeness.

The typical formula of the new formalists of the novel and film is a mixture of coldness and pathos: coldness enclosing and subduing an immense pathos. Resnais’ great discovery is the application of this formula to “documentary” material, to true events locked in the historical past. 237

Sontag thinks this strategy worked for Night and Fog, but not his other films, here is why:

(In Night and Fog) The camera moves about, nosing out the grass growing up between the cracks in the masonry of the crematoria. The ghastly serenity of Dachau --- now a hollow, silent, evacuated shell – is posed against the unimaginable reality of what went on there in the past…the triumph of Night and Fog is its absolute control, its supreme refinement in dealing with a subject that incarnates the purest, most agonizing pathos.

However, in regards to Hiroshima, she says:

…the disturbing anomaly of Hiroshima is the implicit equating of the grandiose horror of the Japanese hero’s memory, the bombing and its mutilated victims, with the comparatively insignificant horror from the past the plagues the French heroine, an affair with a German soldier during the war for which, after the liberation, she was humiliated by having her head shaved.

I have said that not a memory but remembering is Resnais’ subject: nostalgia itself becomes an object of nostalgia; the memory of an unrecapturable feeling becomes the subject of feeling.

And here is about Marienbad:

Here, a strong emotion – the pathos of erotic frustration and longing – is raised to the level of a meta-emotion by being set in a place that has the character of an abstraction, a vast palace peopled with haute couture mannequins. This method is plausible because it is a totally ahistorical, apolitical memory which Resnais has located in what is a kind of generalized Past. But abstraction through generality, at least in this film, seems to produce a certain deflection of energy. The mood is stylized reticence, but one does not feel, sufficiently, the pressure of what the characters are being reticent about. Marienbad has its center, but the center seems frozen. It has an insistent, sometimes sluggish stateliness in which visual beauty and exquisiteness of composition are continually undermined by a lack of emtional tension. 239

Obviously, Sontag’s criticism is imbued with an extremely personal and subjective sensitivity which gives her essay the vividness wanted in such occasions. But again, due to the unwanted authoritative tone derived most of the time unconsciously from it, her analysis slips quickly into the purgatory of unjustified evaluations.

But who care about that much academic regulations? Having guts is more important and Sontag is certainly such a woman. In The New Yorker (September 24, 2001) she remarks about the immediate aftermath of 9/11:

"Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."


1 comment:

Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

Can you explain what happened with the letter and Globe D'Or? What's the nature of the lie there?

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