An appreciation of director Alain Resnais.
I wrote about Alain Resnais in Vogue for his retrospective at MoMA a year or so before meeting him in 1972. I had been moved by his films, both long and short, loving them, actually, because of their way of turning even the simplest, commissioned short documentaries—the workings of the national library in Paris (Toute la Mémoire du Monde); the industrial process of making plastic (Le Chant du Styrène)—into a mysterious feat of art. Last Year at Marienbad, the film for which he was best known when we first met, and which had created an international storm of praise and disapprobation, lingered with me.
It is a film with a story reduced to the idea of an obsessive romantic encounter that may or may not have happened, told by a man possibly deranged. Nothing in my sketch of the film’s narrative would prepare you for the film itself, where everything from the lighting to the music and the editing and the acting and the tonal interplay of the actor’s voices, lives in perfect fusion. From the standpoint of its impenetrability—and thus its continuous mystery—its aesthetic and emotional wholeness, Marienbad is the most perfect film ever made.
So when I was introduced, all those years ago, to Resnais by my friend, Susan Sontag, as the two were exiting the screening room at MoMA, I was expecting who knows what? A remote genius, a person aloof from the everyday, an artist living in the eternal. Certainly not the warm man who, shortly after I sat down in his living room this summer, asked me: “Have you seen the last episode of The Sopranos?”
“Of course,” I say, “and now that it’s over, Sunday night has vanished from my life.” I exaggerated, only slightly.
“Please do not tell me how it ends,” he says, looking alarmed that I might give it away and his expectations along with it.
Of course, I did not. Instead, we talked about how much we loved the show, a conversation leading us to how much he missed New York, where Resnais once lived and directed a segment of a feature called The Year Zero One, a film in which I made my screen debut (and departure) along with another young man, Gérard Depardieu, whose career has since expanded. Resnais gives actors their way, only to a point, of course. When I asked him—as my director—what I should do in my part as a man reading a newspaper headline to his family announcing the end of the world, he looked perplexed.
“How would I know, Frederic?” he said. “It is your role.”
He lights up when I ask him if he has been in recent contact with Stan Lee, the great comic book artist who also had a role in The Year Zero One. Not for some while, he says, but they are and shall always remain friends. He recalls working on a film script with Lee in New York.
“Not Spider-Man,” Resnais says, “not a comic book story, but something wholly different. It was wonderful being in New York in those days and to see Stan Lee every morning, to talk with him and to see him smile.”
He worked on a script with Milan Kundera and at the end of a year, the two perfectionists had squeezed out one page. I once worked with him for three hours drafting a letter to an American composer only to have
Resnais, after lunch, politely ask me if we could go over it again because a word in the letter did not seem exactly right. And, of course, I did, for the pleasure of his company, to see him smile.
Resnais admires writers and actors, loves working and being in their company. In his long career, he has made films with or has adapted and collaborated with some of the most distinctive writers in the world: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Alan Ayckbourn. But in the end, the work is always unmistakably stamped “Alain Resnais.”
He is 84. His hair is white, full and neatly combed, as always. He wears a sports jacket and slacks—as always—but it is too hot for his usual crewneck sweater. For years, he wore exactly the same outfit. I used to wonder how he could wear the same clothes year after year and have them always look so crisp and new. Then, one day over coffee, I learned from him that Yves Saint Laurent made the identical outfit for him whenever the last one needed to be retired.
“But why would you want to wear the same clothes all the time?” I asked. “Doesn’t it get boring, Alain?”
“Not at all. I just go to the closet and find my clothes for the day and I never have to spend a moment choosing. That saves a lot of time.”
I wonder how he manages to dress as he always has, now that Saint Laurent is no longer there to clothe him.
I’m sitting across from Resnais in his quiet, book- and DVD-filled Paris apartment not far from the bustle of the Champs-Elysées and we are talking about Coeurs, his most recent film which last year won him the Silver Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival.
“Imagine a spiderweb without the spider,” Resnais says. “Imagine that people, unknown and unseen to one another, are standing on different strands of that web so that when one person moves another moves, but does not know why.”
And I say, “That is the theme of many of your films, Alain.”
He nods: “I like the story of how our destiny is affected by persons we do not know and may never even meet.” He says this in the same unaffected way he asks for un espress at a cafe. In our 35 coffee addicted years of friendship bridging New York and Paris, I have heard him order many espressos. “How can you drink so much coffee?” I once asked him. “I’m always tired,” he said, “I was born tired.”
But not too tired to make films his life. Coeurs is his 50th, counting shorts and features, and now he is in the middle of preparing another. A maquette of a scene of toy cars and figures is spread out on the foyer carpet.
“What is this new film?” I ask.
He smiles and leads me into his study—more piles of books and stacks of DVDs. On the carpet are 13 books, face up. I can’t see their titles and Resnais asks that I don’t look too closely for the author’s name because the project is still—he says for thriller affect—“top secret.” I’m taken aback, because Resnais, who before has worked only with original scripts or with those adapted from plays, is now filming from a novel.
“Which book are you using?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, “maybe from one and maybe from all of them. I still have to choose.”
We laugh like old boys.
It is after nine, still light in Paris, but it is growing late—for Resnais. He is usually up by five, film or no film. So we speed up the conversation and go to the heart of the evening. Resnais misses New York; it has been too long since he was there, he says. He wants me to tell him what has happened to the street, opposite the Episcopal Seminary, where he once lived decades ago in a little brownstone.
“Lovelier than ever,” I say. “But then again,” I add, “so is the city.”
We hug each other goodbye.
He says, “I hope to see New York again soon. After this film, after.”
“We are all waiting,” I say.