It was beautiful, for a while, to glory in the fact that one of the greats, not just of French cinema, or of "New Wave" cinema but of Cinema, period, still walked among us and was still making films—his Life of Riley, in fact, just premiered at the Berlinale last month!—but this state could not last forever. On the other hand, the fact that Resnais still was active and engaged and productive gives the news of his death a "too soon" stab that, let's be frank, one rarely feels so sharply when it's about someone who's been fortunate enough to reach ninety-one years of age. But a sharp stab it is.
I have loved Resnais' films since, I think, I was old enough to know they existed. As a young movie junkie eager to do nothing but immerse myself in exotic screen environments—any world that I'm welcome to, as the saying goes—the very IDEA of Last Year At Marienbad intoxicated and terrified me. The reality of the film still does the same thing to this day. As an indirect, or maybe not so indirect, result, my defenses of the man's films could range toward the intemperate, as this complaint about certain aspects of the New York Film Festival reception of You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, which harps on the perspective of a critic with whom I've since become friendly. My separate account of Nothin' is more on the rapturous side, as are my notes on the delightful Wild Grass, which played the NYFF a couple of years prior. The Eureka!/Masters of Cinema video release of the amazing Muriel occasioned some aspect-ratio musings, and more, for MUBI, or as it was known then, The Auteurs. I examined Marienbad's debt to Gilda here, and took a brief whack at examining Groundhog Day's affinity with Marienbad here. The interview I wrote up for the blog I had at Premiere, back in 2007, has gone down the Hachette rabbit hole; that it exists so vividly in my memory as both a professional and personal highlight is something I imagine Resnais would have appreciated on a number of levels.
UPDATE: A very kind reader, Fabian Wolff, located the April 2007 interview that I thought lost. I reproduce it below, with the illustration I used for the post.
April 12, 2007
"Hello, Glenn. I am Alain."
The interview was supposed to take place in person, in New York, during last fall's New York Film Festival, which would be screening his latest feature Private Fears in Public Places. But the 84-year-old director Alain Resnais, the constantly inventive creator of such cinematic landmarks as Night and Fog, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and many others (the great Dave Kehr’s piece on Resnais in April 8's New York Times is a superb primer/update on the master’s career), found himself unable to travel. And so the interview became a phoner.
And as it happens, while Resnais’ English was once such that he was able to collaborate with Marvel comics legend Stan Lee on a never-produced screenplay, and direct English-language films written by David Mercer (1977's Providence, with John Gielgud, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner) and Jules Feiffer (1989’s I Want to Go Home, which co-starred songwriter Adolph Green, whose own last words 13 years later were that movie’s title), he now considers it a bit rusty. So he was going to be using an interpreter.
I had seen Marienbad and Hiroshima and many more in crappy prints all through my cinephilic teens, and I had read and re-read James Monaco’s 1978 book on Resnais too many times to mention. Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you that I’m one of those peculiar sorts who is only starstruck by directors. I leave it to you to imagine my elation when, before turning things over to his interpreter (whose name now escapes me—many apologies), Resnais took the receiver in Paris and said, in English, “Hello, Glenn. I am Alain.”
I returned the greeting, with a lot of “sirs.” He went on in English: “I am trying to be ready to answer to your questions. But I have to tell you that it's first time in my life that I will do that kind of interview, so be indulgent and patient.” I believe he meant phone interview. I responded, “Absolutely. Thank you, sir.” He said: “Thank you, sir, too.”
He turned the phone over to his interpreter, who put it on speaker. How it went from there was this: I would ask a question, wordier than it should have been more often than not, given my nervous state; the interpreter would pose the question to Resnais in French; he would answer in French; and the interpreter would translate the answer into English. She would also put the answer in the third person, all the way through. A lot of processing.
I began by asking the standard-issue question of how Private Fears came into being. The answer was standard issue, at least at first; Resnais had been working on another project, and the financing fell through, even though the cast was in place. “And they had to make the changes very quickly in order to keep the actors that he was working with. So he was looking for a film that could be shot immediately in order to keep these actors.” Resnais turned to Alan Ayckbourn, the British playwright whose play Intimate Exchanges Resnais had adapted as Smoking/No Smoking in 1993. Ayckbourn had a new play, Private Fears in Public Places. “As is the case with all 44 plays that Alan Ayckbourn has written, none of their titles wrote, translates literally into a French title, so they all need to be transposed,” Resnais' interpreter explained as Resnais paused after a substantial discursion. “So Alain suggested 104 alternate titles to his producer for a French title. And Coeurs, which means hearts, plural, was the one that was chosen.”
Ayckbourn is a very different writer from the putatively difficult French litterateurs—Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras—that Resnais worked with earlier in his career. The fact is Resnais has turned to all sorts of writers for inspiration (his 1980 film Mon Oncle d’Amerique, featuring some startling people-as-lab-rats imagery, was based on the work of physician/philosopher Henri Laborit), Mouse_dameriquebut I was curious about how he got involved with Ayckbourn.
“He started to see Ackbourn’s plays in London in the 70's. Then he read an interview in a magazine in which Ayckbourn said that he preferred directing his own plays in Scarborough where there was a square theater.”
At this point Resnais switched to English: “So I was intrigued by this.”
“And decided,” his interpreter soon continued, “that he wanted to go see how things were played there in Scarborough. [further response] So he says that he was completely convinced when he saw the skill and the cleverness of Alan Ayckbourn, how he could direct in a theater with 4 sides to it.” As it happens, the Scarborough theater is a square, and the theater is in the round, with the audience on all four sides looking in—the same scheme as New York’s Circle in the Square Theater. Resnais was so knocked out by what Ayckbourn did there that he made a pilgrimage there every season for ten years before asking Ayckbourn if he could make a movie of Intimate Exchanges. “Which had,” the interpreter explained, “the particularity of having 9 characters but only 2 actors.”
Here Resnais broke into English again. “Alan said, ‘I am mad, and I think you are even madder, but do you think you will find producers that are even madder than us to produce this movie?
“So we became good friends.”
The structure of Ayckbourn’s piece sees six interlinked characters in a series of “two-handed” exchanges, and Resnais films the piece in a decidedly studio-bound but hardly theatrical fashion. “He wanted to conserve the…what he calls the unity of what was being said and it needed to be done in sort of a plastic way…what he calls a plastic way, which would mean on screen. And if he had tried to do it outside in [real] exteriors, he feels that the scenes and the feelings…would not have been linked together properly. In order for things to continue, or to be opposed, from one scene to the next, he needed to have that plastic unity of the interior.”
Moving on from Private Fears/Couers, I mentioned that during an interview with contemporary wunderkind Michel Gondry, Gondry had acknowledged Resnais’ 1968 time-travel/tragedy/romance Je t’aime, je t’aime as a direct influence on his terrific Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Resnais said he had not seen the film, but was “flattered that [Gondry] knows even the title” of the picture, which is appallingly difficult to see today. He was similarly diplomatic when I brought up how, in his more recent films, he’s less preoccupied in the manipulation of time than he was in earlier works. “He says that the manipulation of time in films today has been so well explored by so many talented directors that he's less preoccupied to put that forward.” Would he care to name some examples? “He says if you name one person, then you have 100 enemies.” He owned up to being a DVD booster: “It’s a different way to consume films and it's also a way to voyage through 100 years of film making and for him it's a great pleasure, it's intoxicating.”
He became, not quite suspicious, but a little, perhaps, concerned, when I brought up his abortive collaboration with Stan Lee on the script The Monster Maker and with his own once-professed admiration for what used to be called comic books. I can’t really blame him, given that what united comic books and cinema in the ‘60s, when the likes of Resnais and Fellini were citing comics’ influence on visual storytelling, is an entirely different thing than what unites them today (e.g.: $).
“He says he's not an expert on comic strips or graphic novels. But he's always taken this genre very seriously. And writers such as Jules Feiffer and Stan Lee are important…He says that if theater is close to cinema, then comic strips are also close to cinema.” He waxed enthusiastic for a bit on comic books’ influences on cutting techniques, ways of “manipulating space in Milton Caniff’s work” and a bit more…and backed off. “I'm afraid of speaking too much about that,” he said, sheepishly, in English. In a bit the interpreter picked up again: “He wants to make one thing clear, OK, he wants to make clear that the two projects that he was working on with Stan Lee, the two screenplays…” I didn’t know there were two… “…had no characters like Marvel Comic characters. There were no Spider-Man kind of people, it was taking a new direction.” I felt chastised, for some reason, and decided not to follow up on that “two” thing.
I wondered if, at age 84, he still feels the same about filmmaking as he did at the beginning of his career (he made his first short as an adult in 1947). “Yes, he has the same pleasure making films today,” his interpreter happily averred, “and it's also his way of making a living. It's the only way he can make a living. And by the way…all of his films were requests by producers and the tricky thing was finding requests that were interesting for him to work on. Or that he had the artistic and physical capacity to direct. For example, he had a proposal to make a movie on a meeting of Americans and Eskimos that needed to be shot either in the North or the South Pole and of course that was something that he couldn't do.” But Resnais reflects that pleasure and difficulty go hand in hand with filmmaking, and that there’s never been a shortage of the latter either. “They're as difficult today to make as they were from day one, the first film, second film, and today's films, not much has changed in that respect.” But the master does not choose to dwell on that aspect. For his past few films he’s relied on a group of actors who’ve become a sort-of rep company, including the actress Sabine Azema, who’s also Resnais’ real-world companion. “It's a great joy to make a film with friends and be reunited with them in the hectic Paris life where it's difficult to see people and it's a pleasure to have dinner with them and maybe that all of this attracts him unconsciously, this pleasure of being with friends.”
I asked him about the humor in his films, particularly the cardboard-cutout of Alfred Hitchcock that makes a cameo early on in Marienbad, which is still misinterpreted by many as one of the most lugubrious, deliberately humorless films ever.
“Without comparing himself to Samuel Beckett—and [Marienbad writer] Alain Robbe-Grillet, who has also made similar complaints—Becket complained that people didn't laugh enough in their plays. And yes, there are some very funny jokes in Marienbad. But that he hopes it doesn't take away from the tragedy and some of the other passages. And he hopes that in Coeurs this mixing of tragic and humor will also be found.”
Having been brought back to Coeurs, I recalled a particularly moving image near the end, of a pair of hands holding onto each other at a kitchen table lit by a single spot.
“First,” the interpreter said after a spell, “he's very touched by the fact that you keep this souvenir, this precise souvenir of this moment of the film. And the first time he read through it with the actors, there was no conscious idea to do it that way. But Alain says he has always he was very impressed by the 30's movements, such as surrealism--[further response] and something of his approach has lasted from that, stemmed from that. He says imagination is so important in our daily life that if it can be transposed into a film, it's almost natural, it's almost like a documentary!”
With that, it was time to wrap up. The maestro got back on the line and thanked me, in English, for my patience. I told him it had been an absolute pleasure...for it had.