One of the greats of French cinema, Alain Resnais (1922 – 2014), has died. His early films, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year in Marienbad (1961), which experimented boldly with visuals and narrative, were the key inspiration for the French New Wave, dictating the direction Godard and Truffaut headed in.
But where some saw innovation, others only saw pretentiousness. Of Last Year in Marienbad, the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael wrote:
‘The term ‘sleeping beauty’ provides, I think, a fairly good transition to Last Year at Marienbad — or Sleeping Beauty of the International Set, the high-fashion experimental film, the snow job in the ice palace. Here we are, back at the no-fun party with non-people, in what is described to us as an ‘enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel — where corridors succeed endless corridors’. I can scarcely quote even that much of the thick malted prose without wanting to interject — ‘Oh, come off it’.’
The Spectator was more generous. We noticed his talent for the first time at the 1967 London Film Festival, where critic Penelope Houston caught the portmanteau movie Far from Vietnam, an ‘extraordinary, tendentious, question-asking, question-begging, multi-directed French film on the Vietnam war’. Resnais’ contribution was ‘self-revelatory’ and ‘full of tentative inquiry’, she wrote.
He also made one of the first and most celebrated documentaries about the Nazi concentration camps, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) (1955):
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