In an article in the pamphlet accompanying the British DVD release of Muriel, the writer B. Kite believes where the consciousness belonged chiefly to the woman in Hiroshima mon amour, and to the man in Last Year at Marienbad, in Muriel the consciousness is basically dispersed throughout the various characters. This is a useful way into Alain Resnais' first three films, and yet Resnais' work is an interesting combination of an ongoing fascination with and a suspicion of, character. Is it really true that in one film he views events from one character's perspective and in another film from another, or is it the very perspectivizing of events that fascinates him, so that no single consciousness can reign? Though in interviews Resnais insists that all his experiments with time have come from his interest in character, maybe the best way to look at Resnais' work is to see it as 'anthropocosmic', to use a term Gaston Bachelard adopts in his book The Poetics of Reverie. It is perhaps such a term, with its simultaneous respect for the human and the cosmic, that can allow us to say that all three of Resnais' early features - indeed perhaps all of his work - are interested in character and at the same time investigating the limits of it.
One of the pressing questions in a number of Resnais' films is not so much the problem of memory, but the problem of the emotion in relation to the event. When the Japanese man insists in Hiroshima mon amour that the French woman visiting Hiroshima has seen nothing of the nuclear holocaust, though she has been to the museum, this is not because she was not there in the past, when the event took place (he was not there either, but he lost much of his family there), but that he believes she has no reason to be there emotionally. What often interests Resnais, and why we're wary of calling him a character-driven director, though he hardly eschews characterization, is the manner in which an event can be explored, and the person and the emotion as coinciding aspects of being, but not necessarily unified elements. The woman in Hiroshima mon amour can only see something of Hiroshima when the plane of emotional intensity coincides with thoughts on the nuclear bomb. At the end of the film the two very disparate characters, with different tragedies in their lives, seem momentarily to be on the same plane. As the film concludes with the woman acknowledging that he is Hiroshima and with the Japanese man concluding that she is Nevers (where she suffered appallingly after an affair with a German during the war), so it is as though this is the plane of greatest emotional intensity even if the events are long in the past. Here is the anthropocosmic as each character coincides in a moment of mutual intensity, and arrives at a sense of existence greater than their own lives, but not at all irrelevant to them. This would seem to be what Gilles Deleuze means in Cinema 2: The Time Image when saying, "in short, the confrontation between sheets of past take place directly, each capable of being present in relation to the next; for the woman, Hiroshima will be the present of Nevers, but for the man, Nevers will be the present of Hiroshima."
Now simply being present to an event is no guarantee of a full investment in it, and central to Muriel, written by Jean Cayrol, is of course this problem for Helene's (Delphine Seyrig) step-son, Bernard. In the middle of the film we see home movie footage shot in Algiers, and Bernard, who was a soldier in the conflict, explains that one day they tortured, raped and murdered a young woman and yet that he felt nothing at the time; it was only retrospectively that the enormity of the atrocity struck him. Bernard may have been part of the event, but Resnais would seem to suggest that the moment of greatest intensity for the young man lay not in the incident but in the reflection, in a realization of culpability in the wake of a moment of adrenalized horror.
Yet this isn't quite the same as saying Resnais is especially interested in the restrospective feeling of guilt; more in the appropriate planes of intensity. For example a character may feel guilty, but the feeling might still lack the dimension that makes it stronger than the event in the past in which the individual participated. Someone might feel almost no guilt about a bombing mission they took part in during the war, and then later finds out how many people died in the raids, and thus feels some guilt over them. But if in the former instance the bomber feels adrenalized, and in the latter guiltily aware, they may still both be weak ontological moments - they lack an anthropocosmic dimension that constitutes being. There is a moment where the partial self is adrenalized; a moment of partial self feeling guilty. What seems to fascinate Resnais is to try and find a perspective that contains the possibility of an event, understanding that the moment is not the same thing, and this is partly why, say, the Bazinian problem of real time is for Resnais a problem of abstract time, and why the problem of politics is secondary to the problem of existence. When Resnais mentions in interviews (see Film Comment, July/August 75) that people have been shocked that there hasn't been a clear political message in his work, he has talked of fidelity to character. "In Hiroshima mon amour, for example, there were three or four lines that were more clearly political, and which Marguerite Duras (the author) and myself enjoyed. But when they were spoken by the actor it did not fit with the character."
Real time and politics give way to complexity of characterisation, and Resnais' work in some ways echoes Proust's observations early in Time Regained where the narrator talks of himself as a "personage who knew more or less how to look, but it was an intermittent personage coming to life only in the presence of some general essence common to a number of things, these essences being its nourishment and joy." Proust adds, "If I went to a dinner party I did not see the guests: when I thought I was looking at them, I was in fact examining them with x-ray eyes." This is how the moment collapses into a potential event: the objectivity of situation meets the subjectivity of observation, and this is partly why the event, as opposed to the moment, would often not be political. When Proust talks of the beauty of writing inspired by the song of a bird in the park, or a breeze with a specific scent on it, and contrasts it with the monumental moments like the Revolution, he talks of how the former can be more transformatively literary than the latter. Proust mentions Chateaubriand's great writing on these very things, over the political for which he is famous.
This is not however to ignore the real, nor the political, but to find the appropriate laying out of the material so that the real and the political become folds in the space of existence, and not existence on the linear plane of one layer of time. Yet this is not quite the same thing as saying Resnais uses flashbacks either, which would indicate a firm present upon which to flashback. Resnais' sense of time is within the conditional, so that a plane of time is not the present, the past or the future, but an exemplary time: it serves as an example of the ontological problem being addressed, over the material problem existing in a specific plane. In a round-table discussion of the film in Cahiers du cinema on its release, Jean-Louis Comolli said that "neither the film nor the people it shows belong to the order of the particular. From the start we're dealing with the general, with a fable almost". Though we might stop short of agreeing with Comolli on the fable-like aspect, his comment helps explain why at the beginning of many of Resnais' film there is an absence of characterisational focus. In Hiroshima, mon amour there are the many shots of the city, in Last Year at Marienbad of the chateau's halls, in Muriel, the apparently inexplicable cutting to objects during a mundane exchange, and, in My American Uncle, the shots of other life forms to contextualise the lives of the three characters upon whom Resnais and the behavioural biologist Henri Laborit will concentrate.
From this hypothetical plane others can come, and it is true in Muriel it would seem that Resnais concentrates on the one plane that is a situation in Boulogne, just as in Hiroshima, mon amour the situation takes place in Hiroshima. But it isn't the number of layers he creates, but the conditional situation he sets up so that it can be contained by more than characterisation and plot. If Ozu proved central to the development of dead time in cinema, as he would cut away to objects that created contemplative space but didn't further narrative momentum (indeed countered it), Resnais creates a sort of conditional time, a sense of cinematic enquiry that is wary of landing in a time zone and thus allowing it to become representationally coherent.
A couple of examples in Muriel of this deliberate representational incoherence are easy to spot. One comes quite late in the film, where though we're generally under the impression that we are still in the two weeks of Helene's sometime lover Alphonse's visit, we seem to have jumped forward several months as the young woman who came to the town with her older lover says to Bernard that she doesn't want to be with him anymore. In another scene, his stepmother says that he has been living away from home for months now. Is this the future rather than the present? In another scene earlier in the film the impression was that he had been staying with his step mum before the guests arrived, and was only no longer doing so to give space to the visitors. Her line would then seem to indicate that this scene takes place in the future also.
This is to say that even if the film seems to be taking place in one time zone, Resnais offers moments that make us question the reality of what we're seeing - or more appropriately to question which temporal plane we happen to be on. This could appear to be Brechtianism by other means, by an editing approach that distanciates the viewer, but Resnais' project seems to be less about creating distance than a greater conditional immediacy. Comolli says in the same discussion quoted above that an investigation is taking place, but that it is basically an enquiry into Resnais as auteur: "All the characters in the film are Resnais, whether past or present, and all of them are denied or dreaded by him to a greater or lesser extent." Again we needn't completely agree with Comolli to find his argument suggestive, and if we let go of the subjective dimension of Resnais as auteur, and replace it with the conditional that contains the reality of the film, then every plane is in-itself not mandatory. We have not the cause and effect of the chrono-logical, dramatological unfolding in time, but time itself unfolding through thought.
However, this is no gimmick of form, but a question of existence. We only need to recall Resnais' belief that his work is about character rather than theory - about emotional states over issues of time and space. But maybe why this confusion arises is because Resnais works between the two: between character and theory, and this is why we mention existence. It is as though Resnais creates a space that doesn't quite end up leading to an exploration of character, nor especially to experiments in time and space, but looks at the self as if always commented upon by existence - by the anthropocosmic dimension. How aware his characters happen to be of this realm is a moot point, and the Cahiers critics seem in agreement when Claude Ollier proposes that Resnais "chooses characters from what's supposed to be the world of the mediocre in moral and psychological terms." In many of Resnais' films the characters - the woman in Hiroshima mon Amour, the old man in Providence, the three characters in My American Uncle, the characters in On Connait la chanson - are not exceptional in the sense that they do not realize their condition. Resnais' films are not existentially revealing, but reveal existence, which is not quite the same thing. Characters don't existentially discover themselves; Resnais' editing approach searches out the problem residing just beyond the existential contours of the self. Though there are revelations in Muriel - the brother-in-law who exposes Alphonse, who has never been to Algeria - and self-revelations also when Bernard talks about feeling nothing when Muriel was killed but becomes conscious of the atrocity retrospectively, these are what we could call 'contained revelations'.
Most films do not abstract us enough from the material to allow for such containment, and filmic revelations are usually not anthropocosmic but anthropocentric. They are plot revelations that can lead to actions, so that if a character finds out that his girlfriend cheated on him, his friend betrayed him or his daughter's been kidnapped, he can act upon the revelation. In Resnais' films the revelation often finds a dimension beyond character, and one reason why editing is a vital dimension of his work. When Resnais cuts between his three characters' lives in My American Uncle and the biological behaviourist Henri Laborit's comments, when he cuts between a conversation between characters as they walk home one evening in Muriel, to shots of the town in daylight, or follows a match on action as the leading characters in Last Year in Marienbad pass from one shot to the next as if in the same space, but that we then notice the background is completely different, what is he doing? He is if you like cosmologizing character, offering a distancing device, certainly, but one that has little to do with Brecht's anthro-political concerns, and perhaps why Resnais feels as we've noted that "a lot of people have been "shocked" that there was never a clear political message in my films".
It is as though Resnais is fascinated by character, but especially by its containment within a broader sphere than the characters' own immediate activities. Even when he gives a character relative agency - as he does with Bernard when he realises his culpability despite his earlier indifference, or when Bernard goes and kills his colleague who seems to feel no remorse over the Algerian killing, and who remains politically to the right - there is still a gap between feeling and action, motivation and result. Bernard talks of his presence at the rape and killing as if talking of a stranger, and goes and shoots his former comrade with the air of preoccupation greater than the motivation - he seems almost hypnotised. This fascination with character but questioning of agency is evident when Resnais describes the life of Stavisky, whose story he filmed in 1974. When he says that the charming criminal Stavisky "took good advantage of his opportunities, but the world in which he operated flattered and encouraged him, until such time as it judged he had exceeded the limits", he is pointing up the limitations of character within existence in the broader sense, albeit a social one.
Here one can agree with the Cahiers critics in relation to the shallowness of Resnais' characters, but maybe muse over whether that isn't only a characterisational problem, but a problem of the human being him or herself. If like a number of other critics we agree that Resnais' films aren't especially about memory, this isn't because memory doesn't interest him, but that memory is merely an aspect of a being's ontological capacity. If memory were the problem, the solution would be to retrieve it, but while memory may be retrievable, there are still in Resnais's films numerous other problems alongside that retrieval. When Bernard recalls the time in Algeria as we see the home movie footage, the problem of memory is resolved but what about the problem of responsibility, affectivity and culpability? Just as we proposed earlier that agency can come from plot revelations that can lead to action; equally action can come from the accessing of memory. Whether this is, say, Spellbound's dream realization leading to a recalled memory of a murder, or Philip Marlowe realising at the end of The Long Goodbye how his supposed friend Terry Lennox has played him, there is an integrated sense of self: memory, realization, situation and action all become coherent.
One mentions masterful filmmakers like Hitchcock and Altman partly to indicate the originality and singularity of Resnais' interest in the divisibility of the self in film form. Both Hitchcock and Altman are certainly in very different ways interested in the complexity of the self, but not quite interested in the anthropocosmic questioning and shattering of being. Altman may have insisted that Marlowe shooting his friend at the end of the film "was so out of character" (Altman on Altman) but it was still within the realm of a coherent cinematic self. Hence if we don't quite agree with the Cahiers critics on the issue of shallowness, it is because Resnais' films often refuse to show characters coherently enough to regard them with the usual psycho-biographical integration. Yet this would seem paradoxical, not only taking into account Resnais' interest in character above, but also the well-known fact that Resnais was very interested in providing back stories for his characters. "Resnais has never disguised his liking, in his preparatory works" Deleuze says in Cinema 2: The Time Image, "for a complete biography of the characters..." But maybe this detailed interest combines with seeing character as coherent from one point of view (the film Resnais could have made out of the back story he generates), but incoherent from another, and it is this other point of view that usually interests him. This would be less about shallowness of character than sub-division of self. For example in the early scene quoted above, where Resnais cuts during an exchange between Helene and a customer to various objects in the flat, another filmmaker interested chiefly in the shallowness over the sub-division would maybe play up the materialist aspect of the characters and the indifference of the human exchange. This would allow for an anthropocentric judgement of character, while Resnais would seem to demand an interest in a problem that goes beyond the ready coordinates of self and incorporates the complexity of being. Hence we might say in Resnais' work there isn't the shallowness of character; more the depth of being and that pretty much any character would seem shallow given the perspective Resnais offers.
In Godard's Eloge de L'amour, the leading character says he has a lot of memory, perhaps too much of it, and in some ways Resnais explores the opposite problem from the point of view of character, and the necessity of it from the point of view of being. If the Cahiers critics propose that Resnais' characters are shallow, it is partly that the characters do not have enough memory, but this isn't personal absent-mindedness, but more ontological absent-mindedness, a lack of attentiveness towards a greater whole than the self. Throughout the director's work there are glimpses of this wider self, whether indirectly in form or directly through character. In Hiroshima mon amour when the Japanese man refers to the French woman as Nevers and she refers to him as Hiroshima it as though they're trying to reach a sense of self greater than the individual. Moments before she has insisted that she is forgetting him already; that she cannot keep him in her mind. On a dramatic, narrative level this might seem absurd - how can she forget the man to whom she's confessed much of her past and with whom she has made love so passionately? - but from the anthropocosmic one it makes sense. Here is a man who has engaged her in a self bigger than the individual, and it is perhaps this self that she is worried about losing. Where as a young woman she obliviously it seems had an affair with a German soldier during the Occupation, now she consciously has an affair with a Japanese man who lost his family in Hiroshima. In Muriel, Bernard wanders through the film without an especially political consciousness, yet near the end of it he will kill a man because of the man's right-wing political beliefs. In Providence we have an old man preoccupied with his own health, but the film constantly alludes to civil war, and we may be inclined to think that part of this political dimension is his own anxiety dream: that civil unrest is a product of the restless soul, but not a fully conscious dimension of it.
When Deleuze proposes that "Ren Predal has shown the extent to which Auschwitz and Hiroshima remained the horizons of all Resnais' work, how close the hero in Resnais is to the Lazarean hero' which Cayrol made the soul of the new novel", this would seem to counter Cahiers' notion of shallowness. How can we square the idea of the Lazarean hero and the shallow consciousness? We might think again of the notion that shallowness is basically a general given of man, and that to escape into the complexity of being is a leap almost into another dimension. It is this other dimension Deleuze is alluding to when he talks of Resnais' characters being like philosophers: "the philosopher has returned from the dead and goes back there...When we say Resnais' characters are philosophers, we are certainly not saying that these characters talk about philosophy, or that Resnais 'applies' philosophical ideas to cinema, but that he invents a cinema of philosophy..." Deleuze uses the word philosophy, while we are using the term anthropocosmic, but the point remains the same, except that perhaps Deleuze proposes a more heroic and philosophical dimension. We are closer to the Cahiers critics, perhaps, while also suggesting Resnais' characters possess shafts of insight into a wider sense of being than the characters can generally see in their own lives.
In a passage from Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell mentions V. V. Ivanov's observation that "the distortions in modern cinema are often motivated not by "Newtonian" time but rather by "psychological" time of the sort discussed by Bergson", and Bordwell goes on to mention "the goal bereft protagonist." In Bergsonian time as Ivanov and Bordwell couch it, the self would be much 'deeper' than the self in a more conventional work in that in the place of a goal we have an exploration of subjectivity, and Bordwell mentions Repulsion, Belle de Jour and Juliet of the Spirits, as well as Hiroshima mon amour, Wild Strawberries and A Man and a Woman. The self is an arena of exploration, not a cipher of goal-oriented development. Yet what we're proposing is that Resnais is interested in shallowness of character for depth of being, so that the escape from Newtonian time leads not to the Bergsonian sense of personal time mentioned, but the gaps between self and being. It is not so much that Resnais' characters might be 'Bergsonian' in Bordwell's take, or philosophers in Deleuze's much more complex one, but instead anthropocosmic potentialities. It is as if through much of Resnais' work he has searched out moments of width over depth. How to create the broadest rather than the deepest perspective, how to de-personalize time without 'lapsing' into the psychological? Sometimes this width will come from character directly, sometimes indirectly, sometimes in no more than an observation.
In the first instance we may think of Laborit in My American Uncle saying that he shows his patriotism by being on the national grid, and that he comes from a region where liberty, egalitarianism and especially fraternity were practised by leaving half a million dead. This is Laborit in the middle of describing his own existence, by incorporating within it a very abstract sense of identity. In the second we may notice how in Providence Resnais alters the cinematic coordinates. As Richard Roud says in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary: "the house where Bogarde and Burstyn live defies architectural logic, like one of those puzzle paintings by Escher where staircases go up to lower floors, and one never quite knows where one is." John Orr in Art and Politics of Film mentions that "in a couple of reverse-angle cuts the balcony will change from dark mahogany pillars overlooking the city to a bright white veranda overlooking the sea." When Resnais said in relation to Providence that he was interested in finding the "fantastic that lies just below the surface of realism and which is therefore more realistic", we might again think of the anthropocosmic: of a reality that is greater than the individual perspective; that creates contrary perspectives in the very viewing experience. It is a width of being through the transcending of realism. The third instance as we proposed may be casual, as when a character in Muriel says that he recalls what used to be where Muriel's post-war flat is now, or when someone says there are flats that were built next to the sea that will soon collapse because of the erosion in this seaside town.
Resnais seems very interested then in neither the narrative breadth that can allow characters to move from one goal-oriented action to the next, nor especially in psychological depth, but a sort of cosmic width that can incorporate the notion of shallow characters without at all arriving at a shallow work. It is partly this width that creates so many of the problems for the characters that we invoked when saying there isn't so much a character who feels guilty, a character who confronts themselves, but more a plane of coincidence that allows for revelation to take place. In Hiroshima mon amour, a woman who buried her 'real' past faces it with her Japanese lover; in Muriel, Alphonse's 'fake' past is revealed by his brother-in-law, in My American Uncle, Nicole Garcia's character discovers years later that the wife of the man she loved never had cancer, and she needn't have left him so he could return to his wife. It is as though Resnais often sets himself the task of how to make a revelation so much bigger than the demands of the plot. For example in My American Uncle, when Laborit talks of an unconscious but not Freud's, he is talking of the accumulation of self; that we have many potentialities within us that for various reasons are not accessed.
Resnais films are often about 'planes of accessibility'. Can people find the appropriate plane for memory, communication and self-knowledge, for, as Laborit says, "a person is a memory which acts?' This is true even of Resnais' most enigmatic film, Last Year at Marienbad, while Gregory Solman says in a Film Comment article that Resnais structures the film "as one long recollection, complicated by a nameless character's reconstruction of the past to suit his way of coping with loss." By the same token is it not about two characters that cannot or will not find the appropriate plane to make memory actualized? If Last Year at Marienbad remains Resnais most obscure film, it would seem to reside in the inability of the characters to find a satisfactory plane of memory as one character insists that they met last year at Marienbad and the other insists otherwise. Is one character, the man, projecting onto the past to shore up loss, as Solman proposes, or is it the woman who happens to be in denial, unable or unwilling to confront memory? Central to the ambiguity of the film resides in the impossibility of memory settling into a communicable plane.
In this sense, Last Year at Marienbad wouldn't only be Resnais' most perplexing film, it would also be the one possessing the most 'shallow' characters. If Laborit can say a person is a memory that acts, we can add that a 'deep' person is a memory that acts searching out communicable planes of past existence. Perhaps the characters in Muriel are also shallow - even if the film isn't quite as perplexing - because they cannot find communicable planes, only revelatory moments. Generally Hlne and Alphonse bicker rather than communicate, and actually acknowledge this point in a few moments where they are capable of accessing memory - as they walk around the town and remember their affair before the war. Bernard, as we've indicated, murders almost as an automaton, as though the moment he loses the film that Muriel was on, he must accept the loss through killing his military colleague. Resnais may be fascinated by the layers of self in which memory exists, but that doesn't mean he assumes the characters themselves will always be able to access it. A more psychologically driven filmmaker would show the centrality of the character accessing memory, and this is central to sins of the past narratives in Tennessee Williams plays and their adaptations like A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly, Last Summer and The Fugitive Kind, and even true if sometimes in a more complicated way in Bergman films like Scenes From a Marriage and Autumn Sonata.
Such characters are as deep or as shallow as the film's accessing of memory. In Resnais' films he may work from character, but, as we've suggested throughout this piece, this leads not to the psychological but the anthropocosmic. In a key comment in the Cahiers article Rivette says "Muriel is not the moment when the mirror shatters, it's the moment when one moves on from this broken mirror and tries to put it back together again, in a differentway." This seems as perceptive a comment as any in offering an underpinning for Resnais' editing style. It may be the difference between the shattering of the mirror as Jean Domarchi in the Cahiers piece sees it (and which is consistent with Karl Jaspers whom he mentions: an athropocentric agency in the process of its shattering) and the anthropocosmic recreation retrospectively. When critics say Resnais is very much a post-war filmmaker, post Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima, they could be saying that he is trying to put the shards of the past back together again, aware that memory is not only the agency of characters but also the realizations of history. Depth wouldn't only be an issue of personal memory; it would also incorporate the width of historical and geographical existence. To understand one's insignificance in the magnitude of being, while trying to access numerous planes of personal and impersonal being at the same time, would, of course, be impossible. Resnais perhaps more than any filmmaker at least makes the attempt, looking at the edges of that very possibility.
© Tony McKibbin