Wednesday, March 30, 2011

La guerre est finie

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.


DavidEhrenstein said...

This was Resnais' "comeback" movie after the massive criticial and commercial failure of his masterpiece, Muriel. A huige critical and commercial hit it's a smooth vehicle for Yves Montand's star power. You're quite right about Spemprun's script touching on issues that would become key to the radical left as the 60's gave way to the 70's. But I'm sure neither he nor Resnias could have guessed what was to come with the likes of "Carlos."

Ed Howard said...

Interesting, David. It's definitely a comparatively straightforward film when weighed against the other work Resnais was doing in the 60s, so I can see how Resnais would have thought of it as a more commercial movie, with its nods to the political thriller genre and its big star and its direct style. It's probably the one non-masterpiece in an otherwise uninterrupted string of mind-blowing masterpieces.

Which is to say, it's still pretty damn good.

JeanRZEJ said...

Do you have any thoughts about Resnais and his relationship to his screenwriters? He has a rather peculiar place in that he often downplays his own contributions to his works because he always uses others's works, in several cases fantastic constructs which few (probably not including himself) could muster, and in this case in particular the story of a Spanish exile written by a Spanish exile. He's right in acknowledging that he's not fully responsible for the ingenuity on display, but I certainly don't think he's merely an interchangeable cog in a machine, either, but I think there's some balance. Since you've been going through several of his films recently, have you been able to develop any firm opinion on his contribution, or the ways in which his contributions are expressed in his films?

Ed Howard said...

Jean, that's a good subject. Resnais is definitely an interesting auteur in that his films were so often explicitly collaborations with his screenwriters, more so than with a lot of other directors who don't write their own films. I think, after watching Je t'aime, je t'aime recently (and more on this eventually, I couldn't be more excited about a film) I've clarified my ideas about what exactly Resnaias' signature cinematic achievement is, and what it comes down to is editing and its relationship to time. Whether he's collaborating with Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Cayrol or anyone else, it's the editing of these films that expresses the meaning, while the literary scenarios he seems to favor, for the most part, feature purposefully banal and affectless content. Though Resnais is refreshingly humble about his own relationship to his scripts, it almost seems in these films like he favors flat and repetitive content so that his formalist editing schemes can convey the ideas of the films, which often revolve around memory, time, history, etc. There's a remarkable thematic and aesthetic continuity in his 60s films (leaving aside La guerre est finie) that belies the idea that his screenwriters are really driving the films, despite their undeniably important roles.

Of course, La guerre est finie itself is a bit of an outlier in several respects, and the topic of the story doesn't quite align with the concerns of Resnais' other 60s features.

Sam Juliano said...

"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."

Brilliant, Ed. The idea of memories and dreams overlapping stands at the center of this masterwork of the French cinema, and one of it's great director's finest films. There is an essential appeal in the film connected with Montand's position as one who stands by his ideals, despite the harsh reality around him. Unlike his other work, this film doesn't embrace the usual flashback structure, but rather in the perceived future.

Montand is quite good, but there is one component in the this film that cries out it's greatness, and that is Giovanni Fusco's extraordinary score, one of the greatest ever committed to film in the history of cinema.

The film is in dire need of a quality DVD release. The present ones are too dark. Tragic when you consider this is simply one of the greatest of films.

JeanRZEJ said...

It's interesting that you say he chooses 'bland and affectless' scenarios. It seems to me like his narratives are always moving during this period, but they simply happen to curl back in on themselves. As such, both the narratives and the editing repeat themselves (and perhaps most evident in Je t'aime, je t'aime), but I think the affectless feeling may be heightened by the way he has his actors perform. There aren't any violent outbursts of emotion, and in Marienbad especially there is a sort of detached and adrift aura which may color that perception. I guess 'bland and affectless' is a relative term, and perhaps for me the editing gives them an affectation that distorts my perception of the underlying material in the opposite way that the performances enhance the perception. As far as outliers go, this film may be the odd one out from some perspectives but there's also the question of Sacha Vierny's contributions, in which case Je t'aime, je t'aime becomes the outlier (and I noticed his absence). I find Vierny to be one of the most distinctive cinematographers, so isolating his contributions could also be helpful in determining the essence of Resnais' contributions, if it is anything pronounced and not simply skillful coordination which brings all of the complimentary elements into balance (which cannot be understated in importance, I don't think).

JeanRZEJ said...

Or should I say - overstated.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Resnains' relationship to his screenwriters is quite complex. He approached Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Sternberg and Cayrol to work with him, based on his admiration for their novels. (Jacques Sternberg is a marvelous French science-fiction wirter virtually unknown in the U.S.)

Jean Grualt was an established screenwriter who he wantewd to work with, and the results, in Mon Oncle d'Amerique were spectacular. He worked with Seprunon both La Guerre est Finie and the strikingly diffeent Stavisky -- whose most important collaborative participant was Stephen Sondheim.

With Melo and Pas Sur La Bouche Resnais adapted the plays to the screen himself. The model for the first was the "filmed theater" of Sacha Guitry. The second is more complex, with all sorts of surrela Resnais touches such as the hedgehog (one also appears in Providence -- another of his masterpieces)

Ed Howard said...

Sam, agreed about the wonderful score, I can always count on you to bring up the music when I forget. As I've mentioned, this isn't my favorite Resnais but it's still quite good.

Jean, I should say that I too find Resnais' 60s films very moving, but I'm not sure how much of that is intrinsic to the narratives. The dialogue - and, you're right, the performances - tends towards understatement and flatness, while the music and the editing and the unusual structures (which are of course provided by the screenwriters, presumably) provide the emotion. You're also right to bring up Sacha Vierney, a valued contributor to these films.

David, I'm looking forward to getting to those later Resnais films soon - my plan is to watch much of his oeuvre this year.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's the Pas Sur la Bouche trailer

As you can see it stars his late period rep company (Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi, Lambert Wilson)and is a full-press musical.

As Resnais gets older his films get younger.

Anonymous said...

Just watched DLN againn after many years. Nicholas Roeg is a brilliant director.. Those were the days when directors told the story w/o all the special effects trimmings and fat. You can always tell a good director if the acting is at a high level throughout and every actor. This is a great director. Donald Souther,and always does his job well. I wonder if Fellini saw him in this film and cast him 'Casanova". An absolute masterpiece as well.
Is this film where Sheperd Fairy got the idea for the iconic OBAMA image? About a 1/3 way into 'Don't Look Now' an image of V.Lenin in the same graphic style (less colorful) appears on an entire side of a building in the background. Amazingly similar.

Raymond said...

I'm pretty keen to see this. Does anyone know where it might be online? Thanks