Alain Resnais and Nouvelle Vague

Much has been said about the nouvelle vague. It is certainly a movement associated with social-economical situations throughout Europe and Japan, as noted by Bordwell (517), since it is echoed all over many other countries than France. But its status in film history is particularly marked by its acute awareness of methodology and keen cinematic innovations. In opposition to their precedents John Ford, Howard Hawks and many others who rely on a spontaneity specific to the cinematic medium, who show a fine craftsmanship in terms of mise-en-scene, the directors of the nouvelle vague have adopted a more systematic approach of cinematic power and its ideological possibilities .

Although these directors can be regarded as sharing certain common interests and concerns, there is no denying that individual film maker does approach his/her material differently. Bordwell put it correctly, “nothing could be further from Truffaut’s accommodating attitude to his audience than Godard’s assault on sense and senses” (447). If the above two exemplify two extremes, then Alain Resnais’s approach can be said “well-balanced” in the sense that it is neither accommodating nor assaultive – it shows considerable innovations without unnecessary aggressiveness.

Perhaps Resnais is better situated under the category of the Left Bank, a glorious Parisian tradition of uniting the verbal (novelists, poets) and the visual (film makers, painters), since the recognition of the power of words is essential in almost all Resnais’s work. He tends to use voice over with explicit literariness to accompany meticulously constructed visual compositions, fluid camera movements and effective montages. This trait can be found in all his films[1], especially the three most influential ones: Nuit et brouillard (55), Hiroshima Mon Amour(59), L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (61).

Apparently, this overt didactic feature is shared by Chris Marker. But in Resnais’s films the written discourse is needed in a different perspective. Resnais has to no intention to conduct a moral criticism or cultural observation, as Chris Marker persists. The voice over narration as Resnais sees it on the one hand counterbalances the sensory impact of the images, and on the other hand seeks to reestablish the intentionally disrupted continuity of the images. And this sonic richness can be by no means derived from a disorienting naturalness, as we see, for example, in an Antonioni film, partly because it needs to be distinct, continuous, carefully written. In consequence Resnais always prefers, or rather insists, to cooperate with a novelist (or poet, depend on the length needed). All his projects are accomplished this way (see following list for his some of his films and the writers behind it):

Guernica (1950)

Paul Eluard

Les statues meurent aussi (1953)

Chris Marker

Nuit et Brouillard (1955)

Jean Cayrol

Le chant du styrène (1958)

Raymond Quneau

Hiroshima Mon amour (1959)

Maguerite Duras

L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961)[2]

Alain Robbe-Grillet

Muriel (1963)

Jean Cayrol

La guerre est finie (1966)

Jorge Semprun

Je t’aime je t’aime (1968)

Jacques Sternberg

Another distinct characteristic of Resnais’s thematic approach is his reflexive manipulation of cinematic time. In this respect, most of the new wave directors can be said too conventional (with of course the exception of Godard) compared to Resnais. The ultimate object of a Resnais film is nothing but the narrative time itself. In his films there is no other issue more urgent and prominent than the various possibilities of time in the process of revealing itself.

As for visual aspects, Resnais’s position differs from most new wave directors in his opposition to an objective realism. First of all, Resnais never intended any of his frames to be causal, as we often witness in Truffaut and Godard’s film, to be a blunt statement of the director’s social-economical-cultural observations. Consequently we do not see any rough documentary-like camera usage, even though Resnais did have experience in the documentary genre, whereas neither Truffaut nor Godard did not. Secondly, in terms of long-takes, according to Bordwell “one of the major stylistic trends of the postwar era” (440), Resnais is also an exception. Probably exempt from Bazin’s influences, Resnais never favors long-takes. In fact, even if he wanted to, long-take as an aesthetic choice would be incompatible with the rest of his cinematic devices. For one thing, long take seeks to preserve the temporal-spatial continuity thus render a higher version of realism, claimed Bazin. But for Resnais, a superficial realism is probably the first thing he needs to get rid of. He has to break the surface integrity to pieces first and then achieve, so to speak, a psychological realism.

[1] This generalization will of course have to exclude the musical, a genre Resnais dwelled on in his later life. Although it still involves a dense combination of words and images, I would not venture to claim that the lyrics of a musical is in any way literary. Again, this late-coming enthusiasm can be attributed to the influence of a group member and close friend, Jacques Demy.

[2] Resnais is highly specific about certain qualities of the collaborator. After Hiroshima, when hunting for new scenario, he expressed his preference for a female writer (not Duras this time). As a matter of fact, the top two names on his candidate list are Sagan and Yourcenar. It was only after seeing Robbe-Grillet’s script that he found the new direction possible and interesting. This anecdote illustrates very well that it is not just any literature that Resnais wanted in his films, but a certain “voice”.


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