Alain Resnais remembered

The New Wave veteran who just couldn't stop working.

by Richard Mowe

Alain Resnais on the set of Life Of Riley
Alain Resnais on the set of Life Of Riley
Alain Resnais
Alain Resnais Photo: Unifrance
The veteran of the French New Wave, director Alain Resnais has died in Paris, aged 91. His passing yesterday evening (1 March 2014) was confirmed by his producer Jean-Louis Livi. He was surrounded by family and friends.

Resnais despite his advancing years never stopped working. Two years ago he made the gloriously theatrical You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Vous n’avez encore rien vu) and only last month his new film, Life of Riley (Aimer boire et chanter) - taken from a play by his soul-mate the English playwright Alan Ayckbourn - premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and won a a FIPRESCI award and a prize for innovation.

The organisers of this year's French Film Festival UK already were planning a tribute to Resnais with a restored digital copy of his first fiction feature made in 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour. An involving meditation on the potentials and limits of passion and pacifism featuring two "impossible" love affairs, one overshadowed by the bomb, one undercut by Second World War exigencies.

Hiroshima Mon Amour very nearly didn’t happen. At the time, Resnais was working on short documentary films and had turned his attention to the town which had suffered the first atomic bombing in history. Sixteen films had already been made about it. Resnais began to have second thoughts.

Alain Resnais as a young man
Alain Resnais as a young man Photo: Unifrance
Finally, he took the plunge and came up with a fictional feature film, the first until then in his career, and a work that has retained its mythical power right up until today. Resnais won a special award for his whole career in Cannes, in 2009, when he took Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles) to the festival.

His new film, in a career spanning more than 50 productions - including Last Year In Marienbad and Night And Fog - Life Of Riley is his third adaptation of a play by Ayckbourn (after Smoking, No Smoking, adapted from six playlets dealing with wobbly marriages and misadventures and Private Fears In Public Places). In Life Of Riley, the lives of three couples are shaken up by the news their good friend George Riley is ill and has just months to live. It starred his partner, muse and collaborator Sabine Azéma, alongside Hippolyte Girardot and Sandrine Kiberlain. Screen critic Dan Fainaru said of the new film: “Resnais seems to have the uncanny knack of reinventing himself with every new film …”

Azéma began her lifelong association with Resnais when she had just emerged as a young ingenue from the Conservatoire.

Sabine Azéma, Renais's muse and constant companion:
Sabine Azéma, Renais's muse and constant companion: "Always full of ideas ... "
Resnais hired her to play alongside Louis de Funès in his theatre production of Jean Anouilh's The Waltz of the Toreadors.

She once told me that he put down his longevity and energy to "good genes." She said: "He simply loves actors and working them. From dawn to dusk he is always full of ideas - and even during his sleep."

Cinefamily in Los Angeles is currently showing a restoration of Resnais' Je t'Aime Je t'Aime.

André Dussollier and Sabine Azéma in Mélo. Taken from the Film Society of Lincoln Center 2000 retrospective of Alain Resnais' work
André Dussollier and Sabine Azéma in Mélo. Taken from the Film Society of Lincoln Center 2000 retrospective of Alain Resnais' work Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

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