50 Years Ago This Week – Alain Resnais' Greatest Film

The fourth feature film of Alain Resnais, La Guerre Est Finie (The War is Over) opened in Paris on May 11, 1966.  That it is his definitive masterpiece is a minority position. Resnais, revered for his intelligent, haunting, elliptical stories and brilliant, daring experimentation with the possibilities of cinematic time, is best known for his widely and wildly celebrated first two features: Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which was a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 (it was screened out of competition to avoid the possibility of insulting the United States), and the utterly ridiculous (though still revered in many quarters) Last Year at Marienbad.  But here at Mid Century Cinema we’re putting our marker down for Guerre—and while we’re breaking with orthodoxy let’s add for good measure that we favor the best of his later work over some of Resnais’ famous early pictures, including Providence (1977), My American Uncle (1980), Love Unto Death (1984), Private Fears in Public Places (2006), and two that are especially worth seeking out: Melo (1986) and You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012), his penultimate film, made just two years before his death at the age of ninety-one.

La Guerre Est Finie tells the story of an aging, long-time participant in the Spanish Resistance to the Franco regime (Yves Montand).  But it is not a movie that tells us that Franco and the fascists are bad (duh); rather, it is a film about Montand’s own disillusionment—not with the good fight, but with his uncertain place in that continuing struggle, as he finds himself positioned uneasily between the moribund lifers who cut his orders and an impulsive, inexperienced rising generation, an uncertainty further darkened by decades of disappointment.  If fifty is the new thirty, Montand, then forty-five and a lion of a man, plays that age as if it was the old sixty.  

Guerre was written by Jorge Semprún—a more than inspired choice.  Semprún, a survivor of Buchenwald who would subsequently write both Z and The Confession for Costa-Gavras, had fought in the underground against the Franco regime for years before having a falling out with his comrades.  Featuring fine performances by Bergman veteran Ingrid Thulin and newcomer Geneviève Bujold (Michel Piccoli and Paul Crauchet also stand out in smaller roles), the film showcases Rensais’ signature strengths. Pensive, rich, and complex, and masterfully (and moodily) shot, Resnais withholds orienting signposts in favor of allowing pieces of the story to fall into place over time—or not, as it is suggested, or at least plausible, that some episodes on screen may not have actually happened, or appear not as they “actually occurred” but as how the characters might have imagined them.   

In both substance and style, this type of ambitious, no easy answers cinema was exactly the sort of film the New Hollywood longed to produce.  One of those most directly influenced by Resnais was John Boorman, whose path-breaking Point Blank (with The Great Lee Marvin) was one of the first entries that ushered in the era.  In that film, Boorman experimented with manipulating how we receive information “in time”, not solely with fragmented flashbacks and temporal discontinuities, but by introducing echoes and encouraging a sense of déjà vu. “Every single scene was echoed in another scene,” Boorman said of Point Blank, explaining how in that film he sought to deploy the techniques that “we associate  . . . with Resnais.”

 

Plan

Planning One More Operation

 

Too Late

But Maybe His Time Has Passed

 

Action

The Young Want Action

 

Funeral

The Old Guard is Running Out Of Time 

 

Montand

Goodbye to all That