Alain Resnais - The Meanderings of Memory
"It is there. It is not there. What we see cannot be nature. And yet it must be." If replacing "nature" with "memory", French poet Henri Michaux's musing matches impeccably with Alain Resnais' (1922-2014) films.
The elusiveness of memory is a theme that haunts, and transcends, every Resnais film. The great modernist director's obsession with time, memory, and how the past lives with the present becomes an impetus that led him to an extraordinary adventure in the cinema of ideas, and in the idea of cinema. Yet, the auteur always refused the word "memory"; apropos his work; I'd use the word "imagination" he declared. This perspective connects him with 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who in Leviathan defined Imagination as nothing but "decaying sense"; when we would express Decay, and signify that the Sense is fading, old, and past, it is called Memory. To Resnais, films are simply to capture and freeze the "decaying sense", approaching reality through the imagination, or, approaching the imagination through reality – and that makes his films ever so profound and mesmerising.
Poetic imagery, exquisite composition, labyrinthine structure, captivating montages and searching camera; Resnais' "tricks" are far more than what Pauline Kael perceives as "beautiful diddles". The past melded with the present; lost love wound intertwined with wartime scar; life transcended with death; and even a simple choice between smoking and not smoking these amazing and often contradictory concepts of characters or senses are embodied in an unconventional cinematic language blending Nouveau Roman, theatre and music.
Unfolded like fascinating, elliptical puzzles, his films are imagination that is neither realistic nor unrealistic, but simply the sum total of our cognitive, and subconscious. It is precisely this astonishing dialectic between experience and memory that gives life to his films. His visionary experimentation are attempts at approaching the complexity of thought in our comprehension of the world, and even conceiving a whole new universe of sensory experience.
On his passing eight years ago, we paid tribute to the French master filmmaker in a specially curated programme "Alain Resnais: The Labyrinth of Time and Memory I". This year, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we bring his singular cinema back. He is not here; yet he is always here.