Friday, February 25, 2011

Resnais Retro

Sabine Azema in Smoking and No Smoking (1993)
Alain Resnais
February 25-March 20, 2011
Museum of the Moving Image
35th Avenue at 37th Street, Astoria, Queens

French director Alain Resnais makes films that are dazzling constructs, playing with time and space, even with the very form of cinema, in an exciting and innovative fashion. That formalist playfulness will be on display at the Museum of the Moving Image for the next three weeks as the still vigorous 88-year-old master receives a nearly complete retrospective of his work, including all 18 of his feature films and several of his most important shorts. (He’s at work on a new film, translated as You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, based on Jean Anouilh’s play Eurydice.)

Although 1959’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour—which, along with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, helped usher in the French New Wave—was an explosive debut, his masterly short films throughout the 1950s (All the Memory in the World, Guernica, The Song of Styrene, and culminating in the classic Night and Fog) pointed the way to his main preoccupations: memory and forgetting, and the subjective nature of reality.

One-of-a-kind classics like Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Muriel (1963)—perhaps his greatest film—and The War Is Over (1966) followed, along with less successful but still intriguing puzzlers like Je t’aime, Je t’aime (1968), Providence (1977), neither of which are available on DVD and so are musts to see during this retro. His run of early ‘80s hits included Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980), Life Is a Bed of Roses (1983) and the grievously underrated Love unto Death (1984), which features a haunting Hans Werner Henze score.

After nearly 30 years of formalist filmmaking, Resnais suddenly turned in the opposite direction when Melo was released in 1986: his adaptation of a forgotten 1929 play was shot very deliberately as a theater work, with curtains, title cards before each scene and obviously stagebound settings. If it seemed that Resnais was refuting his earlier films, he wasn’t; instead, it was simply a fresh way for a master filmmaker to approach his art.

Since Melo, Resnais has made perversely artificial constructs from material as disparate as comic books (1989’s I Want to Go Home), theater (1993’s Smoking/No Smoking and 2006’s Private Fears in Public Places, all adapted from British playwright Alan Ayckbourn), musicals (Same Old Song) and operetta (Not on the Lips). Even if his latest, Wild Grass, isn’t up to the inspired heights of his creative renaissance of the past quarter-century, all of these later films are as formally original as his earlier work, created through equal—if vastly different—means of artifice.

Resnais never gets credit for the sublime performances he extracts from his actors. Private Fears pivots on an exceptional cast, with Resnais regulars Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditti, Andre Dussolier and Lambert Wilson joined by the always enchanting Laura Morante and Isabelle Carre. Ayckbourn’s witty dialogue is there, too, in translation. And the director’s inspired decision to literally bury his Private Fears characters in snow harkens back to the more stylized Love unto Death, which included short scenes of snow falling as Henze’s music plays on the soundtrack.

But what a difference a couple of decades makes: whereas the earlier film was awash with intimations of mortality, Private Fears in Public Places is a melancholic affirmation of life, one of many masterworks in this long-overdue retrospective. 

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