Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Alain Resnais' La vie est un roman is another curious experiment from the restlessly inventive director, whose work has always been concerned with the nature of the mind and the imagination, with the fluid nature of reality, time and space under the influence of the human mind. This film, built on a script by Resnais' frequent collaborator Jean Gruault, weaves together three separate stories, three separate times and layers of reality, all unified by a shared location. A remote castle in the country, part of an unfinished project by the eccentric Count Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi), is the setting for three stories that together form a dazzling, ambiguous study of love, childhood, and imagination. Forbek builds his castle as a palace of happiness, but is interrupted by World War I, and after the war reunites his surviving friends on the half-completed grounds for a strange experiment. Later, in the 1980s, the castle has become a school, where a group of educators with unusual ideas are holding a conference on teaching methods. Running throughout both of these stories is a fragmentary, theatrically stylized ancient tale of a Robin Hood-like warrior of the people rescuing a damsel and leading a rebellion against a cruel king.
That fairy tale narrative often seems to emerge from the fertile imaginations of the children who run around the school's grounds, oblivious to the seriousness and fractiousness with which the adults approach the subject of guiding children. While the other two stories here are as real or as fake as any fictional narrative within a film, the heroic story is self-consciously presented as a work of imagination, taking place within a dreamlike, surrealistic, brightly artificial world that seems to intersect with the reality of the rest of the film at right angles. A woman carrying a baby, rescued from the vicious king, climbs out of a hidden passage in a tree as a car passes by on the nearby road, heading towards the school. As Resnais' camera pans to follow this woman from a fairy tale, the naturalistic scenery of the forest surrounding the school is interrupted by the intrusion of painted sets that look like animated images inserted into the real world, as jarring as the intersection of drawn and filmed worlds in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. This tale of knights and kings and monsters and beautiful damsels in distress is obviously the outgrowth of the children's imaginations, as they run around the school, mostly unheeded by the adults, their imaginations running wild, creating exciting scenes of battle as the hero vanquishes a humanoid lizard, saves the woman and wins her love, and sets off towards his destiny.
The other stories here are just as fictional and as artificial, even if they seem to have a mostly more "realistic" sensibility to the way they're filmed and presented. The World War I story is a lurid melodrama of rejected love and betrayal, as Forbek, after the war, finds that his fiancée Livia (Fanny Ardant) has left him for another man, their mutual friend Raoul (André Dussollier). Forbek invites the couple, along with the rest of their friends, back to his castle, where he proposes a strange experiment: he gives everyone a potion that sends them into a deep sleep, and begins what he calls a process of rebirth, brainwashing his guests into childlike, innocent new people of pure love and happiness. The modern-day story is similarly about the implausibility of romantic notions like "true love," which the naïve teacher Élisabeth (Sabine Azéma) believes in despite her own troubled history with romance. The more cynical Nora (Geraldine Chaplin) proposes a bet with her friend Claudine (Martine Kelly): that they can get the idealistic Élisabeth to fall in love with a man of their choosing — the goofy, childlike Robert (Pierre Arditi) — and thereby prove that "true love" is a construct, subject to manipulations and misdirections.
What Nora and Forbek have in common is a desire to shape reality to their own whims; they are the writers, the creators, of their own private stories, with real life as the raw material for their dramas and love stories, except that life isn't so malleable, and people seldom follow the predictable dramatic arcs of fictional characters. Forbek and Nora are, in their own ways, and for their own selfish reasons, trying to tell a story using other people, but their plans don't play out with the iconic narrative flow of the hero's legendary slaying of the evil king. This is the essence of the film, an inquiry into the relationship between reality and the art that supposedly mirrors it and influences it. Are the stories we tell reflections of reality? Or are they ideals that we then aim for in our lives, desperately and fruitlessly trying to make life conform to the logic of a story? Life might be a novel, a story, a fairy tale — or, as in the English version of the title, "a bed of roses" — but it's not necessarily the story we want or expect. As the audience, we might believe that the hero or heroine of the story has chosen incorrectly, that the happy ending is not quite the happy ending we thought was coming, that this isn't the love story we thought it was. Those who try to shape reality into a story of their choosing, meanwhile, find reality resisting, the branches of its stories extending in unpredictable directions, refusing to be trimmed into the neat shape of a novelistic structure.
At the same time, the film is very much shaped as a narrative, if not by Nora and Forbek, those would-be storytellers, then by Resnais and Gruault, whose control over this fictional construction purposefully frustrates the characters' illusions of control. Resnais continually announces the film's fictional nature by increasingly styling it as a musical comedy, having the characters break out into song. The music creeps into the film, at first appearing only sporadically in strange little fragments of singing, often with an offscreen voice repeating a phrase that had just been spoken, as though hinting at an alternative realization of this story in which the characters express themselves through song. The music takes over more frequently as the film goes along, occasionally interrupting the diegesis entirely for proper musical numbers, like Élisabeth's passionate defense of the concept of "true love" against the skepticism of Nora and Claudine. "The man I'll fall in love with isn't a bar of soap," she sings fiercely, angered by Nora's comparison of love to picking out household goods in a supermarket — she's romantic and sentimental, possessed by ideas handed down by romantic novels, grand romantic fictions, great love stories. Nora, in contrast, seizes on the comparison to commercial products, believing that love is as susceptible to marketing as anything else. In the end, neither of them is quite right: the reality isn't quite as romantic as Élisabeth thinks it is, which gives the happy ending a bittersweet undercurrent, but Nora is also proven wrong in her belief that people can be moved around and forced into playing roles in stories right out of fiction.
The film is thus both a tribute to the imagination and, perhaps, a consideration of its limits, of the failings and boundaries erected by human flaws and the pettiness of so many dreams and desires. It's all about the unfettered imagination of a child versus the limited, constricted perspective of an adult, locked into rigid ideologies and ideas about how things should be. When Élisabeth unveils the giant model landscape she uses as a teaching tool, after an initial period of awed murmuring, the other teachers in the audience begin criticizing her from their many perspectives — she's blocking children's imaginations, she's too neutral politically, she's not pragmatic enough — and the conference degenerates into splintered arguments and a chorus of chattering, singing voices. Only the children, and Robert with his childlike sense of imagination, ignore all this discord and begin happily playing with the model, exploring its layout and its interchangeable parts, eagerly constructing new combinations of modules. The conference attendees say they're only interested in the happiness and success of children, but their various theories and ideologies are developed seemingly without any regard for actual children, with little true understanding of their charges. At one point, one of the educators, who professes libertarian beliefs and claims to encourage freedom in the classroom, gets interrupted when one of the rambunctious kids runs into the room and throws a tomato at the teacher's face, expressing exactly the freedom that he says he wants.
This is another typically thought-provoking and challenging experiment from Resnais, whose formal experimentation has always mirrored his films' themes of artifice, memory, thought, history and time. Here, he weaves together three separate stories that seem to share only a common locale, but actually are linked, much more interestingly, in terms of Resnais' thematic focus on the nature of storytelling and its relationship with "reality." At the same time, La vie est un roman is also, itself, a grandly entertaining set of stories, from its theatrical legend to the lavish, elegant style and B-movie sci-fi trappings of the post-WWI story to the musical romance of the modern story. Resnais is deconstructing the form and purpose of narrative and fiction, but crucially, he's not denying the pleasure and the imaginative potential of these stories, which is perhaps why he ends the film by giving the last word to the playing children, singing a song that hints at an adult "understanding" that's always just out of reach, no matter what one's age is.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Alain Resnais' Mon oncle d'Amerique is a fascinating narrative experiment from the director who, more than any other, has always been concerned with the workings of the human mind. This film takes as its subject the biological processes by which the mind and personality are shaped, the ways in which one's persona is formed from the sum of one's experiences and the neurological foundations governing our reactions in various situations. The film is narrated, sporadically, by the French neurosurgeon Henri Laborit, who discusses the film's three interconnected stories in terms of behavioral biology ideas that explain the actions of the characters in these dramas. Laborit discusses fight-or-flight in a human society in which the "fight" component of that response has been rendered largely unacceptable. He analyzes careers and relationships in terms of systems of reward and punishment that are ingrained from very early in childhood. He observes the ways in which psychological stresses related to these biological underpinnings are expressed in anxiety and psychosomatic illness.
It's a potentially reductive and limiting rubric, pulling apart these dramatic stories and discussing the action in terms of biology and behavior. In fact, though, Resnais, working from a script by Jean Gruault, is after something far more complex. Gruault had also written the script for François Truffaut's The Wild Child, and at one point Laborit's voiceover mentions that when a human child grows up in isolation, without any human contact, he will be like "a little animal" with no language or other human behaviors. Resnais, much more powerfully and inventively than Truffaut, is exploring what it means to be human, exploring the essence of humanity as a sum of experiences, biology, and most crucially, one's interactions with other people. A core idea of the film is the concept that the individual human mind is actually formed from contacts with other people, from ideas learned from others, experiences, memories. An individual human, then, is actually comprised of the other people he or she has come into contact with, the experiences they've shared, the memories they've formed together. Resnais and Gruault, in collaboration with Laborit, have rendered science and biology as poetry, discovering that to analyze and dissect the nature of human behavior is not to render it cold and clinical, but to make the mystery all the more remarkable.
As Laborit says towards the end of the film, implicitly responding to such criticisms of science, "knowing the laws of gravity doesn't make us free from gravity." In the same way, the film's analysis of its stories in terms of behaviorist theories doesn't render the stories abstract or rob them of their power as human dramas. Indeed, what's quite remarkable about the film is that despite its constant breaking of the narrative illusion with explanatory voiceovers and comparisons to animals and laboratory experiments, the film remains consistently affecting on a human level. These are simple stories of disappointment, anxiety, and desire. René (Gérard Depardieu) is plagued by anxiety about his career; he's dedicated himself to his work but a series of mergers and shake-ups at his company put him in ever more precarious situations, ultimately forcing him to choose between his career and his family life. Jean (Roger Pierre) is a politician and aspiring writer who starts an affair with Janine (Nicole Garcia) just as his own career starts going through some trouble. And Janine has her own story, about her dreams of being an actress and her up-and-down romance with the married Jean.
It's not only biology that drives these stories. People learn from experiences, from the models provided by parents and other relatives — and also the models provided by the cinema. Throughout the film, Resnais cuts in excerpts of black-and-white films starring Jean Gabin, Jean Marais, and Danielle Darrieux, who provide templates for the actions of the three protagonists, cinematic role models whose behaviors are often echoed in this film's stories. The cinematic reference points parallel the biological ones, suggesting that just as biology contributes to the shape of a person's life and soul, the things that a person sees and experiences also add to the person they might become.
In the film's second half, Resnais shuffles the structure and begins interspersing the dramatic scenes more and more frequently with scenes of laboratory experiments featuring mice, scenes from the protagonists' childhoods that connect back to their later lives, and, hilariously, inserts in which men in rat masks enact scenes of love and competition. Those surreal interludes simultaneously buttress the theme of biology and behavior and undercut it, since they emphasize the gap between the biological foundations of behavior and the actual complexity and variety of human behavior. This is why, far from reducing humanity to a series of programmed responses, what Resnais, Gruault and Laborit are doing here is really all about the complexity and mystery of behavior, the intimacy between science and poetry in creating a full portrait of humanity.
In the film's powerful, mysterious final sequence, Resnais shows an urban building that has an image of a shady green forest covering one of its walls. Resnais cuts to successively closer and closer shots, and in each one the illusion of a tree growing from concrete is shattered more and more decisively. First the texture of bricks can be seen in the image, which is a mural painted on the wall. As Resnais cuts to even closer views, the overall sense of the image is compromised, and it stops looking like a tree at all — in the closest shot, the film's final shot, the image has become abstract smears of paint on bricks. At that intimate distance, it is impossible to tell that from afar the paint creates a rather convincing illusion of forest greenery; up close it's just paint, seemingly splattered on the bricks with little care, just a splotch that looks like nothing at all. It's a startling and ambiguous metaphor, suggesting that the closer we look at something — like human behavior — the more mysteries are introduced, even as looking closely increases understanding about how things are put together.
Monday, April 30, 2012
Editing is the key to the cinema of Alain Resnais, the crux of his work. Through the cut, the filmmaker controls the flow of space and time, controlling what's seen and not seen, where a scene starts and where it ends, and few other directors have made this truism so explicit in their art. For Resnais, this process has often been a cinematic analogue for the workings of memory, for the self-editing capacity of the human mind. This is especially apparent in Providence, his first English-language film, in which the dying writer Clive Langham (John Gielgud), suffering in agony from the cancer tearing him apart, constructs an elaborate and surrealistic narrative involving his relatives. Clive is reconstructing his past, casting his son Claude (Dirk Bogarde), his bastard son Kevin (David Warner), and Claude's wife Sonia (Ellen Burstyn) in a strange drama of adultery and psychological abuse, imagining them suffering emotionally as he's suffering physically, imagining them as cruel and petty and vile.
And it's editing that allows him to do this. The film's opening is a disorienting flow of seemingly disconnected scenes and images, gradually taking shape as Clive's voiceover intrudes, commenting on the action, shaping it into the form that he wants to. There's an obvious connection between Clive's narrative direction and the role of the filmmaker. Clive begins speaking over the images, banishing certain images and characters from view, expressing his appreciation for other moments, waffling over what he wants to see next. He frequently loses control of the narrative — Kevin enters a room instead of Claude, a door is sometimes located down a long stairway and sometimes on level ground, a soccer player described as Kevin's brother sometimes jogs into the scene without warning or purpose — and has to start again, to shift the scene, his words demanding a cut, a change of scene, a restructuring of the images. He sometimes speaks from off camera, giving directions to the "actors" in this narrative, suggesting lines that they then repeat; in one hilariously disjunctive moment, Sonia opens her mouth to speak and it's Clive's dubbed voice that comes out, a reminder that the characters in a film are simply giving voice to ideas and words decided upon by a screenwriter (British playwright David Mercer in this case) and a director (Resnais).
Indeed, at some points Clive, through his imagined characters, sometimes seems to be directly parroting the voice of Mercer and/or Resnais. In one of the most telling moments, Clive says, monologuing over a love scene between Claude and his mistress Helen (Elaine Stritch), "It's been said about my work that the search for style has often resulted in a lack of feeling... However, I'd put it another way, I'd say that style is feeling, in its most elegant and economical expression." That's a pretty apt summary of Resnais' work, which is far more emotional than it's often given credit for, the emotion arising from the rigorous application of formal structures. The style of this film is ravishing, too, with an understated elegance that sometimes gives way to bursts of surreal but subtle stylization. In particular, there's a certain veranda where the characters sometimes meet and talk, the background changing from one patently artificial matte painting to another depending on the mood and context of their talk: a gorgeous, perpetually sunny seaside with painted waves for evocations of childhood pastoral perfection, and a gloomy, cloudy backdrop of grim little houses stretching off into the distance when childhood memories are far from the mind.
It gradually becomes clear over the course of the film that Clive's impressions of his family are not to be taken at face value. His narrative at times seems to tear apart as the characters stop playing their parts, instead voicing complaints and recriminations addressed, not at each other, but at Clive; it's as though the author's creations are refusing to play their parts, turning on their creator to express the bitter, unhappy feelings haunting this bitter dying man. He seems to be projecting his own failings and his own guilt onto his relatives, creating a narrative that contains, coded within it, the real anguish he feels over his cruelty towards his wife and son, his guilt about his wife's suicide, his regrets about the philandering he did while she was still alive. His wife appears several times, trapped in a concentration camp guarded by soldiers who are rounding up civilians and killing them, and his wife is also echoed in Sonia and Helen, both of them physically similar to the woman Clive loved, both of them suggesting the Freudian resonance between wives and mothers, lovers and mothers.
That imagery of war, terrorism, and concentration camps haunts the film, appearing as psychic tears in the story Clive is constructing, a war felt in the gunfire and explosions that pop and crack in the background of the soundtrack, only occasionally commented on by the characters, who mostly seem to have internalized and grown accustomed to this constant state of violence and breakdown. It's a potent metaphor for the way in which a lifetime of cruelty towards others gradually begins to seem like background noise, the scars healed over, the emotions flatlined to a constant dull throb of misery. Clive is a man trapped by his past and his own miserable persona, so that even his deathbed fantasy is dripping with spite for the people in his life. The film's final twenty minutes, which represent an abrupt shift in tone, suggest that Clive's entire narrative is populated with twisted versions of his family who represent only reflections and projections of himself, nothing like the mostly happy, well-adjusted people who appear at the end of the movie, representing perhaps the reality of Clive's family or maybe only his more optimistic vision of them, with his bile replaced by genuine, if still rather cranky, love.
This is yet another complex, provocative masterpiece from Resnais, another in the long and pretty much unbroken chain of deliberately constructed, fascinating experiments that he'd been making since the start of his feature film career. The film's structure provides both a clever metaphor for the workings of the cinema and a stunning examination of death and memory: "feeling, in its most elegant and economical expression," an enthralling film in which its style and its formal framework lead the way to its potent insights about the mind and the creative process.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
With Stavisky..., Alain Resnais has made a film that seems to be all about appearances and surfaces, but uses its glossy, charming — but ultimately tragic — gangster story as a way of exploring questions of identity and politics. The story of the conman Stavisky (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who reinvents himself as the sophisticated financier and businessman Serge Alexandre, takes place in the crucial years of 1933-1934, a period of slowly increasing tension in the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The film is based on real events that inspired right-wing riots on February 6, 1934, leading indirectly to the gradual loss of power by leftists and socialists within the French government. The film was written by Jorge Semprún, who had also written Resnais' La guerre est finie in 1966; like that film, Stavisky... engages with European fascism and leftism through questions of identity and personality. Stavisky/Alexandre is a man of many names, many identities, a small-time crook who has put his past behind him and become a well-respected member of society, dealing with high-ranking politicians and businessmen, coming up with grand plans that would impact the entire world economy. Stavisky is hiding from his past, at times acting as though the man he was is someone else entirely, with no connection to his present self at all.
Resnais connects this denial of self with the question of Jewish identity during a time of steadily increasing anti-Semitism in the years before the Holocaust would begin in earnest. Stavisky is a Jew, and a self-denying Jew, just like his father, who had entirely repudiated his faith. But he's self-denying in an entirely different way from his father, who had always advised him to be "average," to let people ignore him; Stavisky doesn't believe in this advice. As one of his employees says about him, "He wanted the world to talk about him. He should have wanted it to forget him." Stavisky's grand plans only draw attention to him, make him a target, impossible to ignore or to forget. In this, he is compared to a refugee German actress (Silvia Badescu) who he sees giving an audition in his theater: she stands up on stage and announces that she is a Jew, that she has fled from Germany. She is announcing her identity up front, hiding nothing, very unlike Stavisky, whose Jewish roots are deeply buried beneath layers of alternate identities and invented names. Perhaps that's why he's so moved by her, although their stories only intersect briefly. He sees in her a pride and a strength of character that, despite all his bravado and his smiling confidence, is utterly missing in him because he can never truly be himself. And yet Stavisky, in his own way, also refuses to be "average," refuses to hide or to congenially assimilate into society. Instead, he places himself out in the open, using the connections he builds to ingratiate himself into polite society, politics and the inner workings of the world economy.
It's this domain of privilege and power that serves as the film's milieu. The film is set almost entirely in fancy hotels, glitzy seaside casinos, resorts for the idle wealthy. The camerawork of Sacha Vierny accentuates the shiny, colorful veneer of these surroundings. The camera drifts lovingly over the facades of these pleasure palaces — although Stavisky, who says that happiness is momentary and pleasure permanent, would likely not call them that — and revels in the excess and grandiosity of this lifestyle. Jewels glitter brightly, sparkling with stars of white light. The women, like Stavisky's beloved wife Arlette (Anny Duperey), are dressed in fine furs and sleek dresses, their made-up faces surrounded with shimmering jewels. Everything is glamorous and draped in riches, even in the midst of the Great Depression, which hardly seems to have touched the social circles that Stavisky operates in. The lively Stephen Sondheim music makes the film seem like a musical with no real musical numbers, just the sprightly accompaniment of Sondheim's jaunty melodies and romantic string themes. Alexandre puts on theater productions, giving the public garish spectacles to distract from the real conditions of the world for ordinary people. As his employees tell him, no one wants frugality in their entertainment, they want to be entertained and delighted by everything they don't have in their own lives. The film is dripping in ostentatious displays of wealth and privilege, set in a fantasy world that seems entirely disconnected from both the poverty of most people and the brewing political turmoil that would throw the entire world into chaos and horror by the end of the decade.
That turmoil rarely intrudes in obvious ways into the world that Stavisky has built for himself, and yet he's surrounded by signs of what's to come. He has associates and friends on both sides of the political spectrum, especially among rightists like the charming, cheerful fascist Baron Jean Raoul (Charles Boyer), who wants to replace France's parliamentary government with a National Union comprised of wealthy, influential society people. Stavisky also nurtures his connections with Juan Montalvo (Roberto Bisacco), a Spanish exile who's gathering funds and weapons to trigger a civil war back in his native country. Stavisky involves himself in wild schemes, financed with fake bond issues, to rejuvenate the world economy and end unemployment, but the real future is to be found in the plans of his friends, who plot against the left with the help of this disguised Jew, who barely thinks about the political consequences of his associations. He says that he remains neutral, that he'll support whoever is in power and forge connections on both sides to cover himself in any eventuality, but he never seems to grasp the deeper implications of the platforms that these polite fascists are really pushing for.
The film's political subtext also involves the parallels and connections between Stavisky and the exiled Leon Trotsky (Yves Peneau), who arrives in France in the opening scenes of the film. Resnais then cuts from Trotsky's motorcade to an image of Stavisky/Alexandre descending in an elevator in one of his posh hotels. Just to underscore the point, Resnais cuts back and forth a few times, stuttering the image between Trotsky's car and Stavisky in his elevator; the hotel scene is accompanied by lushly romantic strings, while no music plays over the images of Trotsky. This montage at first seems like a simple joke, juxtaposing the arrival of this important political figure with the lavish lifestyle of the conniving gangster, but the parallels between the two men go deeper than that. Both are Russian Jews in exile, and by the end of the film, the failure of Stavisky's criminal schemes will have catapulted the rightists to power and endangered Trotsky's position in France. Throughout the film, Stavisky's showy existence and denial of his roots is contrasted against Trotsky's quiet maintenance of his beliefs and his low-key engagement with the radical politics of the era.
Although the film's surface period evocation is flawless — the art direction is sumptuous and detailed — Stavisky... is far from a typical period epic. Resnais, as he often does, uses non-chronological editing to fragment the narrative, weaving together flashbacks and flash-forwards that foreshadow and then outright depict Stavisky's downfall and death while he's still at the height of his power. In one key sequence, Stavisky goes walking in the woods, visiting the house where his father, embarrassed of his son's criminal record, committed suicide. As Stavisky prepares to leave the site, Resnais cuts in for a surreal closeup of a dead mouse that Stavisky steps past without seeing it, a symbol of the doom that he can't see coming. (Later, a white ermine frolicking in the snow serves as a prelude to Stavisky's actual death; Resnais loves playfully using animals as mysterious symbols like this.) The film's interpretation of the real-life Stavisky Affair suggests that the title character was unwittingly responsible for many of the failures of French leftism in the pre-WW2 era, haplessly paving the way for the Vichy regime and the victories of French fascism.
Monday, May 16, 2011
Alain Resnais has always been concerned with time and memory, and his best-known films revolve around these themes with almost obsessive dedication, as though locked into compulsive loops in which the same ideas recur with rhythmic regularity. The signature cinematic technique of his art is the edit, the cut, which is quite natural for a director so concerned with time. The art of montage is the art of arranging and controlling the flow of time; the editor shapes the raw material of a film, deviating from the linear progression of the shoot to arrange the scenes and shots in ways that express ideas, or tell stories, or create emotional juxtapositions between images. Editing reaches its apex as an expressive form in Resnais' art, and especially in Je t'aime, je t'aime, a film whose structure very cleverly mirrors the editing process, embodying the art of editing in the film itself. It's one of Resnais' very best films, a sci-fi time travel masterpiece in which the publishing executive Claude Ridder (Claude Rich), after recovering from a suicide attempt, is enlisted by a secretive research firm for a potentially dangerous experiment. The anonymous, unnamed scientists want to send Claude back in time as their first human research subject, reasoning that since he hadn't wanted to live, he didn't have much to lose if the experiment went wrong.
This experiment is supposed to send Claude exactly one year back in time, and he is supposed to remain in this time for exactly one minute before returning to the experimental chamber, a cushy, womb-like enclosure that from the outside, absurdly, looks like a misshapen brain or a vegetable or a hybrid pileup of curved human body parts. Instead, Claude becomes unmoored in time, blinking in and out of the present (another editing trick, that) and reliving a shuffled series of moments from throughout his life. Moments in time become unpredictably, randomly pulled out of context, so that Claude's life flashes before his eyes — and our eyes — out or order. Key moments are repeated, scenes are cut off abruptly and may or may not be continued or expanded later, surreal visions that might be dreams butt up against real memories, and several dramas and mysteries slowly emerge from this fragmented view of Claude's life.
The focus of his memories is his wife, Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), whose death triggered Claude's own suicide attempt. The couple's troubled relationship dominates the memories that Claude relives, leaping non-chronologically from their first meeting to the later unhappy stages of their relationship to its possibly violent ending. They meet, they fall in love, they argue. Claude is unfaithful and Catrine is perpetually depressed, and it seems like far from an ideal relationship, although the fractured chronology makes it difficult to tell if the couple's relationship started in one state and progressed towards another, or if they were continually bouncing back and forth from better times to worse ones. The shuffling of narrative chronology eliminates the linearity from a person's life, so that each individual moment stands on its own, the moments of tenderness (the sweet love scenes in which the couple exchanges loving words) and the moments of cruelty and darkness (the scene where Claude casually confesses his infidelities while saying he still loves his wife).
Cause and effect are blurred, to a degree, so that it's no longer possible to think of one scene leading into the next, and the lack of clear indicators of time and place means that the order in which things occur is frequently unclear except when the dialogue drops enough contextual clues to figure it out. But if time travel makes Claude's life a puzzle, it's obvious that Resnais doesn't mean for the audience to reassemble the pieces: there are too many pieces missing, too many that don't fit, too many gaps. There is a genuine mystery here, some uncertainty revolving around how exactly Catrine died, but the mystery is not the point: the core of the film is the emotional intensity of re-examining one's life, rifling through the archives of memory and finding all these moments and images that evoke nostalgia, or regret, or happiness, or despair. The way things fit together in the end hardly matters; Claude already knows how things end, even if the audience doesn't quite yet, and his experience of his life as an out-of-order flow of scenes both banal and earth-shaking is what the film is all about.
The mystery is also largely rendered irrelevant by the sense that the film is really exploring the distorting effects of memory, the ways in which memory can lie and obscure rather than revealing the truth. Resnais is concerned with the selectivity of memory, and for much of the film several key scenes are occluded, perhaps because Claude is on some level subconsciously directing the images that flash before his eyes. At other times, it seems like his memory is rebelling against the staid confines of reality, creating surreal disjunctions and weird interludes that suggest that not only can memory lie, it can go mad.
In several scenes, dreams filter into reality, as when Claude remembers a sexually charged encounter with a beautiful woman, and the woman appears, stretching her shapely leg up into the air, in a bath tub that's ludicrously placed in the middle of Claude's office. That woman appears again later in a scene that's presumably the source of Claude's erotic dream/vision, but the "real" scene has a similar absurdist visual sensibility, since the woman appears twice, reflected in mirrors on either side of Claude as though he were being asked to choose between two identical women. Indeed, he occasionally does seem to confuse his many women, as in a scene where the woman he's in bed with shifts between cuts from Catrine to several other women before settling back into his wife again; the bed and the room change as well, as Claude's mind mashes together different scenes with women from throughout his life, his erotic adventures all blending together. Other scenes are utterly inexplicable, ripped out of context as surreal intrusions of the subconscious: a man drowning while speaking on the phone, a short figure in a suit and a green reptilian mask who walks alongside Claude without saying a word.
The film also shuffles the chronology of Claude's career at a publishing firm, where he progresses from working in the mail room to a mid-level office drone to an executive position. The scenes of work are almost always deadening and numbing, and though Claude's progress upward through the company is not presented in a linear fashion as he skips from memory to memory, it gradually becomes clear that the only time when he was actually happy or contented at work was in the stock room, mindlessly stacking magazines for shipping. The more responsibility he gets, the higher he rises, the more miserable he becomes. At one point, he sits at his desk with glazed eyes, musing about how slowly time passes, how it seems like it will remain the same time forever — a memory that acquires a very different resonance when shuffled into Claude's jaunt through the past. In another scene, Claude sits at a desk working while men in business suits are clustered around him, commenting disparagingly on his ability to finish the project he's working on. With the dark setting and the shadowy figures arranged around the desk, towering over Claude, it's staged like a nightmare, a paranoid fantasy of workplace pressure, another expression of Claude's subconscious rather than a literal memory of something that actually happened.
The film's more surreal diversions confirm that Resnais has a sense of humor about this sci-fi material, deliberately skewering the conventions of the genre in the deadpan scenes leading up to Claude's experiment. The scientists take him on a tour of their facility, showing him a mouse that they insist has successfully traveled in time, though they joke that they can't be sure since the mouse can't talk; how short-sighted, Claude says, they should have taught the mouse to talk first! The mouse, who accompanies Claude on his own time travel trip in a plastic bubble, shows up at random in Claude's memories, scurrying across the beach while Claude and Catrine lounge in the sand.
The mouse is a physical manifestation of the unreliability of memory, as it scurries into memories where it previously hadn't existed, its presence distracting Claude from the moment; is the mouse actually changing the past, or only changing Claude's memories of the past? Another animal, the cat that Catrine and Claude keep as a pet, appears, it seems, only when Claude remembers that it exists. Suddenly, once the cat is mentioned, they have a cat. The memory that they have a cat seems to shift the cat into existence, or back into existence. It raises the question: can something be said to exist, or to have happened, if we don't remember it? It's as though memory is populating and creating the world through its functioning. Claude's wartime memories, which similarly seem to be unreliable, are an interesting and unresolved undercurrent in the film. He refers several times to his experience in the army during World War II, which contradicts his frequent assertion that he dislikes guns and doesn't know how to use them — but then again, his chosen method of suicide also contradicts this statement. In a very puzzling scene that's unconnected to virtually everything else in the film, Claude runs across an old man who, he claims, gave Claude fake documents and a new identity during the war. The old man protests that he doesn't remember Claude, and says that it's impossible, that he too got a new identity during the war. It's a very mysterious scene, suggesting that there's a lingering mystery in Claude's past, even in his identity. Is memory really so fragile, so malleable?
That question is at the heart of Je t'aime, je t'aime. The film's minimal sci-fi story provides a framework and a clever conceptual container for Resnais' consideration of the nature of memory. As Claude hurtles through time, each memory he encounters might or might not provide additional context for the scenes that surround it, sometimes completely altering the understanding of another memory or casting other memories in a different light, at other times existing independently as self-contained stories or scenes. It's a film that acknowledges that a life can seldom be completely understood, and that the retrospective filter of memory can provide many different vantage points on that life. Its construction, a parallel for the process and artistry of filmmakers, suggests that we're all filmmakers and artists in our own minds, that the life stories we construct for ourselves are mental films, scenes projected in endless loops, moments edited together into semi-coherent assemblages that don't tell stories so much as replay emotional highlight reels.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Alain Resnais' fourth feature, La guerre est finie, follows the radical aesthetics and unusual narrative structures of the director's first three features with a comparatively traditional tale of a Spanish political operative based in Paris and conducting missions intended to undermine the regime of the Spanish dictator Franco. Diego (Yves Montand) is a Spanish exile who operates under a number of aliases, working with an underground Communist organization mostly based in Paris, smuggling newspapers and propaganda into Spain while trying to organize strikes and revolutions to weaken Franco's regime. The film opens with Diego barely escaping from Spain back into France by using a fake passport, pretending to be a French businessman. When he's stopped at the border, the Spanish police call his supposed Parisian home and speak to his "daughter," Nadine (Geneviève Bujold), who vouches for him.
The film envisions political activity as an act of imagination and creativity, as something akin to the artist's creation of an alternate reality that replaces, at least in the domain of the aesthetic, the world outside the art. Diego is a revolutionary for whom this image has started to fade, to lose its appeal. He is no longer convinced that his activity is accomplishing anything, and he grows weary of endless conferences and secret meetings, endless trips across the border that accomplish little except moving paper from one place to another. His comrades, he believes, are living a fantasy, believing that their Paris-based organization can stir up the masses of Spain from outside, that they can dictate the day and time of Franco's downfall with their communiques. Diego has come to a more realist understanding of just how long it can take to effectively change the world, and his disillusionment weighs him down as he returns to Paris, visits his longtime girlfriend and lover Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), and becomes involved with Nadine, who's part of her own ring of activists with a more violent tactical agenda in Spain.
Over the course of the film, Resnais observes the debates and discussions among these underground factions and resisters, their conversations awash in the terminology of 60s radical politics: Leninism, self-criticism, revolution, the masses, general strikes and bombs to awaken a sleeping proletariat. The film's style is mostly straightforward, in crisp black-and-white, and the editing is not as jarring and jagged as it was in Resnais' first three features. The only exception is the occasional interjection of scenes that reflect the imagination of the protagonist, as Diego imagines what might've happened to some arrested friends, or what might happen at his next rendezvous. In one of the most striking of these insertions, Diego imagines a succession of women who might be the anonymous contact pretending to be his daughter: in his work as a spy, he is in the unique position of having false relatives who will help him from afar without ever meeting him. He can't help but wonder about the voice on the other end of the phone who's so intimate with him, so familiar, even though he has no idea what she looks like. He can only envision a woman walking along, her appearance changing with nearly every step.
Later, Deigo will actually meet Nadine, so that his image of her will coalesce into a particular woman. There follows a remarkable sex scene with Nadine in which Resnais references Godard's A Married Woman from a couple of years earlier. He chops the sex scene into discreet fragments: a shot of the man's hand on the woman's stomach, a shot of her hand clenched in his, a shot of her knees, and the sequence ends with a very suggestive shot of her legs slowly spreading apart, the camera slowly drifting down her legs, the shot cutting off just before reaching the inevitable destination. In Godard's film, this fragmentary collage of body parts suggested disconnection and dehumanization, but Resnais makes it lilting and lyrical, with a gentle drifting quality. Nadine, shot against a pure white background, seems to be levitating out of bed, floating into the air, an image of surprising sensuality, so that the encounter is anonymous but intense. It has the quality of an escape, of two people existing outside of space and time, in a white void removed from the world, and thus removed from the realities of Diego's constant revolutionary struggle, removed from his worries and the constant threat of arrest or death.
In contrast, when Diego returns afterward to his home with Marianne, it is as though he has crashed back to reality, and the weight of his revolutionary's life comes crashing back onto him. With Nadine, he'd affected yet another false name, calling himself Domingo for "Sunday," while she called herself "Nana," an affectionate nickname given by her father, who Diego had been pretending to be for his latest mission. (And also a reference to Godard's Vivre sa vie.) They both have aliases, and it further enhances the impression that this encounter is an uncomplicated diversion, a dream of what being a spy is like; Nadine is charmed by Diego's false passports and what she probably imagines is an adventurous life as a "professional revolutionary," and her glamorous image of him is certainly a part of this dalliance. Marianne, in contrast, does not see the glamor; she gets to worry, to wonder when or if she'll see him again, and Diego's return to his home with her brings reality back into sharp focus. He's forced to interact awkwardly with her friends, telling lies about where he'd been. He walks into her young son's room and refreshes a chalk message on a blackboard while the boy sleeps nearby — it suggests that this is the only contact he has with the child, leaving messages in the night to let him know that he'd been here and thought of the boy, even if he was gone by daylight.
The subsequent sex scene with Marianne is then concrete and physical where the one with Nadine had been abstracted and lyrical. The scenes begin the same, with Diego caressing the women's backs, lifting their shirts to put his hands on their backs and stomachs, drawing a connection between his two women, the one who represents "reality" and the one who represents his spy alter-ego. The juxtaposition of these two scenes, one after the other, calls attention to the blurring of different realities. What's more "real" for Diego, his home life with his long-time girlfriend Marianne — who he doesn't see for months at a time — or his constant shuffling back and forth across borders, his name changing every time he meets someone new? As Marianne tells him, after they've made love, his life is in Spain, with his cause and his people. His real life is not this home, not the lies they tell about him being a translator traveling for his job, but the lies he tells as a spy.
There is also the reality of Franco's Spain as it is as opposed to the dream maintained by the revolutionaries, a dream of what Spain once was before Franco, and what it might be again if they are successful in their plans. In their own ways, revolution and resistance are also ways of denying reality, proposing and projecting a new reality to take the place of the current one. And in the case of these Spanish exiles living in Paris, they are projecting their reality from outside, like the cinema projects its beam through the dark and onto a screen. Diego and his comrades, in Paris, are the projectors, and the image they are projecting onto the screen of Spain is their own plan, their own vision of its future without Franco. Anti-fascist resistance becomes an act of imagination and fantasy, a way of denying the hard facts of reality in pursuit of a dreamlike vision of a possible future.
Monday, February 28, 2011
Alain Resnais' Muriel ou Le temps du'un retour is a curiously unsettled, and unsettling, film, a continuation of the disjunctive, ambiguous dream logic of Resnais' previous feature, Last Year At Marienbad. Like the infamously unresolved Marienbad, Muriel revolves around missed connections, complicated pasts, lies and disguises, shifting identities, love affairs and betrayals. Also like its predecessor, it mocks conventional storytelling by shattering narrative into a patchwork series of disconnected events, using editing to thrust seemingly unconnected moments together. In the opening minutes of the film, Resnais' editing confounds a prosaic conversation by chopping up the scene into miniature details: bowls of fruit, a doorknob, a piece of furniture, a door, anything but the people actually speaking. This opening suggests the destabilization to come, but only partially. A few minutes later, a nighttime scene is interrupted by a series of shots of urban streets, shifting unpredictably back and forth from night to day. Resnais is mocking the convention of the establishing shot, mocking the whole idea of setting the scene through images of scenery: the only thing these shots establish is that time slips unpredictably, that location is unstable, that this is a film where the sense of reality can be disrupted at will, images thrown together without logic, randomly, so that an ordinary story becomes surreal and abstract.
And beneath it all, this is an ordinary story. As Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) says at one point, speaking of her own long-ago love affair with Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), "It's a banal story. I find that reassuring." That's not quite right, though. For one thing, Resnais isn't telling a banal story: he's telling several, all of them blended together, their facts and details mixed up and prone to change at a moment's notice. For another thing, the way in which Resnais tells this story is anything but reassuring. It's the story of a woman trying to reconnect with the lover who left her many years before, when they split apart towards the end of World War II. Alphonse comes to see his old lover Hélène, at her invitation, bringing along a woman who he calls his niece, François (Nita Klein), but who is really (maybe?) another girlfriend, perhaps one of many for this deceitful man. Alphonse stays with Hélène, perhaps for many months, perhaps for just a few days — it's hard to tell, as Resnais chops up the story into disconnected moments that seem to mean nothing in isolation, the sense of time utterly obliterated by these fragmentary montages of snatches of dialogue, silent temps mort interludes, puzzling diversions.
In any event, the story seems to be locked into a never-ending stasis, trapped in cycles of repetition like the frustrated maybe-lovers of Marienbad. Alphonse is always threatening to leave, and so is François, but neither ever does despite many conversations that seem to end with the matter resolved, with one or the other ready to depart immediately. Hélène's stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), newly returned from the war in Algeria and obviously mentally scarred by the experience, is similarly always in the process moving out, but never seems to finish. He periodically packs up his stuff and gets into arguments with Hélène, but then in the next scene he might be back, magically reappearing from one shot to the next as though nothing had happened. At one point, Hélène says that Bernard has been gone for eight months, but could that really be true? The film's manic disregard for time and space makes it impossible to tell.
It's as though these characters are trapped by this story, as trapped as the partying bourgeois of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, made the year before. Buñuel trapped his characters in a physical space, but Resnais encircles these people only with the boundaries of narrative and cliché. They're hemmed in by the story, by the editing, by the illogic of a film where everything seems to be perpetually on the verge of happening without ever quite getting there. The characters keep expressing their emotions, telling and retelling their stories, exploring a past that seems to be evasive and contradictory, but they never progress beyond their state of stasis, repeating the same actions and the same arguments over and over again.
The key to all this confusion lies in the film's subtext, its hints of wartime trauma and atrocity. Bernard says he has a fiancée named Muriel, who no one has ever met, and he's always saying that he's going off to meet her. In fact, no such girl exists, even though Bernard does have a girlfriend (Martine Vatel), whose name turns out to be Marie-Dominique, not Muriel. The secret of Muriel is revealed during a sequence in which Bernard, an amateur filmmaker, provides voiceover narration over a reel of grainy, scratchy clips of soldiers. His story initially seems like a romance, like the story of how he met his girlfriend Muriel: he saw her from across an office, he went over to see her, there were typewriters, and then instead of an office it's a courtyard, and then it's a warehouse. Without warning the story has become a war story, a story of soldiers torturing and raping a prisoner named Muriel, stripping her naked, burning her with cigarettes, kicking her as she lays on the ground dying. It becomes clear that Bernard saw this during the war, that he even participated in the abuse, although perhaps not as enthusiastically as some of the others. This is the girl he's obsessed with, the girl who occupies his thoughts now, not a lover but a symbol for the horrors of the war, a symbol of the brutality inflicted by soldiers on those they oppress, a symbol for the French occupation of Algeria and the terrible effect of this war on both those fought it and those who suffered innocently under its toll. When Bernard says he's going to see Muriel, where does he goes? What does he mean? Is it that he sees her everywhere now?
The Algerian situation haunts the film, and so does World War II, the occupation of France, the Liberation. Boulogne, the town where all these memories and stories coexist, was bombed badly during the war, and was largely rebuilt. The characters speak of places that no longer exist, places that have been reconfigured: Hélène's apartment, she says, occupies the same physical place that once housed the attic of her friend Roland's (Claude Sainval) childhood home. This is why the characters, weighted down by the past and by geography, can't escape their cycles of disconnection and dishonesty, can't help but repeat the stories of the past.
For Resnais, this cyclical trap is rooted as much in things as in people. Hélène is an antique dealer, working out of her apartment, and as a result she lives, quite literally, amidst the clutter of the past — as Bernard says near the beginning of the film, one never knows what era one is in in a place like this, where the styles of the past clash against one another, multiple times coexisting in the same place. In much the same way, history — World War II, Algeria, bombings and atrocities — coexists with the present, never quite fading away. The records of photographs and audio recordings, like those that Bernard preserves, can be reminders, evidence, but they can also lie: Alphonse, who has never been to Algeria, pretends he has and presents photographs as proof. He's a tourist, like the soldiers of Godard's Les Carabiniers, insisting that snapshots can stand in for reality, that a photogenic image can paper over the real oppression of the Algerian people. Alphonse is also a bigot, a man who says he respects all races, "even the Arabs," a phrase in which the "even" tellingly reveals his real feelings, barely covered by his false civility.
Muriel is a remarkable film, a surreal subversion of bourgeois narrative, in which the unstably shifting tectonic plates of place and time create a very uneasy footing for these characters. Even the music — a spiky, dramatic score by Hans Werner Henze, with operatic vocals by Rita Streich — contributes to the instability, as the music appears sporadically and unpredictably as an accent, except that it doesn't seem to be accenting anything in particular. The music suggests suspense and action while the characters never do or say anything beyond banalities, beyond the rote repetition of their familiar cycles. The very form of Resnais' film mocks these bourgeois fakers, mocks their petty aspirations and desires, mocks the way they focus on the trivialities of their personal histories while ignoring the bigger picture. For Hélène and Alphonse, self-involved, wrapped up in their own dramas, World War II was a backdrop for their aborted love affair, but Resnais doesn't allow them to leave it at that, as complicated political contexts keep encroaching on their hermetic little melodramas.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Alain Resnais' debut feature, Hiroshima mon amour (following a long string of short documentaries that included the bracing Holocaust film Night and Fog) was one of the opening salvos of the French New Wave. It remains a potent, intellectually stimulating work, a sustained examination of the bonds connecting nations, and the large gulfs of experience and understanding that separate them. The script, by the novelist and future filmmaker Marguerite Duras, keeps the story at an entirely abstract level. The main characters, a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) are unnamed, and their relationship is developed primarily as a symbolic way of working out the tensions inherent in trying to understand a foreign culture, and especially a foreign culture that has experienced something as devastating and historically unprecedented as the explosion of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The French woman has traveled to Japan to act in an anti-nuclear movie about Hiroshima, and while there she engages in an affair with the Japanese man. Throughout the film, they exchange dialogues during which she tells him about a traumatic experience in her past, about her doomed affair with a German soldier in occupied France during the war, and her disintegration and suffering in the war's aftermath.
As the film shifts fluidly between the couple's dialogues and images from the woman's past, Resnais and Duras probe the different wartime experiences of the French and the Japanese, and the barriers to true understanding. In the film's justifiably famous opening, the two lovers speak in voiceover while the images illustrate their conversation about the tragedy of Hiroshima. The woman believes that she understands what happened because she has seen the reconstructed city, has visited the museum where photographs and objects testify to the destruction of Hiroshima, has seen the movies that re-enact the horrors. While the woman enumerates these things, the man keeps reiterating that she does not understand, that she has truly seen nothing. This essayistic opening, in which the two lovers appear only as disconnected body parts, covered in ash as they embrace, connects back to Resnais' short film work. The first 15 minutes of the film are nearly a complete essay-film in themselves, encapsulating Resnais' themes and ideas, which are then expanded upon by the remainder of the film.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
At a beautiful, lushly appointed country estate, a man and a woman meet, maybe for the first time, maybe after a year apart. The man (Giorgio Albertazzi) believes they have met before, that they had plans to run away together, that she told him to wait a year, which he did. The woman (Delphine Seyrig), however, does not remember, or pretends she doesn't, or only remembers fragmentary details: in any event, she tells him they have never met before, that she has never been where he says they met, that she won't go away with him. This is the basic form of Alain Resnais' enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad, which resolutely circles around and around, patiently exploring the potential variations on this vaguely defined story. The main characters are never named, their relationships never clarified. The woman possibly has a husband (Sacha Pitoëff), or maybe he's just a friend, or a companion, or maybe he doesn't know her very well at all.
And so on. The man provides the film's voiceover, a rhythmic, repetitive mantra that cycles through the same sets of details over and over again, as though reciting a well-known text and improvising subtle variations on it as he goes along. As Resnais' camera wanders fluidly through the corridors of this hauntingly quiet mansion, the man tells the woman about how they met a year ago, embellishing the story with new details, new nuances, each time he tells it. They met in the gardens, talked about the statues and the weather, walked amid the neat rows of pyramidal bushes. He went to her room to see her, but she was afraid. Of him? Of her husband? She was seductive and warm, smiling her shy smile at him. Or she was cold, distant, staring off into space, abstracted and inaccessible. The story never takes on a concrete form, never solidifies, and yet with each new iteration of the man's narration its emotional undercurrents become clearer: the hot/cold inconstancy of romance; the conflict between nostalgia and its enemy, forgetfulness; the ways in which memory and fantasy are woven together in the mind. This probing, abstract material is largely the product of the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the script for the film and whose sensibility is as important to its overall effect as Resnais' aesthetic.
The thematic underpinnings of the film are Robbe-Grillet's, but the film's sense of mystery and tension arises just as much from Resnais' strange, unsettling imagery, which alternates between static, rigorously posed compositions and languid tracking shots that flow through the hallways of the mansion. The film opens with a lengthy sequence in which there is hardly any sign of human presence. Without any context, the man's voiceover begins its relentless circular onslaught, repeating itself and describing the house and its empty hallways, while Resnais' camera wanders along the surface of the estate's ceiling, its ornately decorated walls and archways and dangling, brightly shining chandeliers. The house seems to be devoid of life, though soon distant figures begin to appear, way down at the far end of a hallway or flanking a doorway, and finally the camera wanders across the blank, expressionless faces of a group of theatergoers at a performance, treating their unmoving faces and unseeing eyes with the same abstracted care as a carved wooden design or a crystal chandelier.
Indeed, the film consistently treats its characters like objects, pieces to be maneuvered on some kind of weird game board. One of the film's most famous shots is a long shot of the garden outside the mansion, its central walk surrounded by carefully shaped pyramidal bushes, with several people standing in the center of the path, spread out as though placed in specific places to form a pattern, their long shadows stretching away from them at oblique angles. It looks like an abstract geometric design, with human elements interacting aesthetically with static decorative elements. The man likes to tell stories about statues, to imagine rich histories and complex emotional meanings behind each of their poses, their gestures, permanently frozen: finding human qualities in unliving stone. Resnais' film takes the same form, weaving stories around these living, breathing statues. The film's people are invariably stiff and sedate, staring off into the distance, wandering aimlessly through the corridors of this austere mansion, engaging in chit-chat that's marked by long, uncomfortable silences. The man looks at a statue and says, "that might as well be you and I," and he's right.
This is a potent depiction of alienation and disconnection. The estate where these events take place is described as a place to "rest," a place where nobody does much of anything or says anything that might stir up reactions. That's why the conversations in the film are so resolutely inane, the atmosphere so sleepy and dreary. The man might want the woman to remember, to recover the past she's forgotten, but it seems like a hopeless project in a place that seems designed for forgetting, for letting go, for living in a kind of zombie-like daze. The central couple's wanderings are inevitably accompanied by the omnipresent hum of the film's soundtrack, which consists almost entirely of the eerie, minimal organ drones of Marie-Louise Girod, a placid musical expression of ennui. The man and the woman, regardless of whatever history they may or may not have together, are isolated from one another here, separated by the enervating decor and the suffocating pallor of the surroundings. In fact, the film may do too good a job of capturing this sense of alienation: its repetitive rhythms and insistence on draining these people of any trace of humanity can be soporific and frustrating.
The man and the woman are always self-consciously creating and recreating themselves, always searching for their story and its ending. Several times this ending plays out, never to their satisfaction, and the man, metafictionally controlling the flow of the film with his narration, starts over, trying to reach a different resolution. The man and the woman simply encounter one another, over and over again, their present and their supposed past blending together seamlessly, erasing any continuity in place or time. Scenes jump abruptly from one locale to another, reflecting the unsteady foundations of the man's story. They are both uncertain how and where things have taken place, or indeed if they've even taken place, and the voiceover seems to be in search of a coherent narrative: this happened here, or maybe it was there; there was a mirror on the wall, no, it was a painting, or no, it was above the dresser instead.
Throughout it all, Resnais' images lend a concrete sensory quality to these ephemeral memories, capturing with his sumptuous cinematography every possibility, every variation, letting each of these stories exist if only in images. Thus, when the film ends and this couple finally goes off together, it is the ending they were looking for, but it doesn't feel any more or less real than anything else in the film. It is impossible not to think, as Resnais' camera drifts subtly upward: maybe it doesn't happen this way, maybe they part, maybe they meet again in a year, at an ornate country estate, maybe he tries to convince her that they met before, or maybe she remembers now and he's forgotten, or maybe, as they wander the halls of this mansion, distorted by mirrors, posed like statues, maybe they never met, maybe they don't even exist at all...