When I saw this mysterious moment on screen last year, it electrified me: Mathieu Amalric, moving his body heavily and turning his back to the camera (and to us) in a strangely ceremonial way, decisively points, with his hand and his whole arm, down a street. What place of assignation, of destination, of destiny itself, was this? When I experienced this tiny, powerful fragment of cinema in You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (2012), I had the feeling that director Alain Resnais was summing up his whole career, capping off his life-long research into the deep and secret language of film.
Cinema operates a dual action: the intensification of space, the heightening of time. Time and space as lived things — lived by us, the viewers, even more than by the fictional ciphers on the screen. A passage (a succession of spaces, places, environments, architectures) and a period (an accumulated duration of seconds, minutes, hours) that are not just crossed, but felt, emotionally — and thus transformed, metamorphosed, in their material dimensions, the concrete made over into the imaginary.
Alain Resnais (1922-2014) was a true man of the cinema. He said it over and over, in his amiable way: he likes cinema to be cinematographic, to give a thrill that only it can give — both imaginary and material at the same time. But he was no purist, he knew the thrill of the cinematic could be milked from anything: an actor's gesture, an edit, a set, a change of coloured lights. From anything, and from the canny combination, in time and space, of all these anythings.
Resnais' films exist for the prime moments when they arrive some time, some where — moments that make you draw or expel your breath and realise: we've made it this far — with everything that this means, with all the symbolic and emotional weight it carries — and now we go on to the end... But his films, wonderfully, never wanted to end, especially in this last decade: there were fake endings, surprise endings, double and triple endings in Les Herbes folles (2009) and You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet — some of them happy, some sad, some undecidably in-between...
These moments of arrival in Resnais are always completely physical in terms of the particular world that each of his films represents: we come a specific site (bar, cinema, bedroom, stage...) at a specific moment (dawn, dusk, when the rain begins to fall, when the sun begins to shine...). How else to describe the emotion, so precise, so acute, that accompanies some instants that recur or echo across his long and magnificent career: like when the couples meet up, outside a tea room or a cinema — each signified by a single, neon-lit sign — from Hiroshima mon amour (1959) to Les Herbes folles.
Hiroshima mon amour has a strong, classical element as its armature: a brief period of time (hardly 24 hours), unfolded through a meticulous succession of spaces, places, rooms, streets, domestic dwellings and ephemeral service-centres of various kinds. The passage through time, is never wasted; Resnais does everything in his power to sharpen it, crystallise it, bring it to the point of a moment that breaks over us like a wave. Not necessarily a moment of high drama; often, simply, a moment of respiration. Films can bind and unbind us, in our psyches; Resnais' films do it better and more often than most.
Resnais has died at 91. He worked, doing what he enjoyed, until the very end — and was still being acclaimed for it too, at the Berlinale. We need to see his last film, Life of Riley (2014), and re-see all the others too — right away, to know, once and for all, despite all the misguided pronouncements down the years about how cold, cerebral, calculated and conceptual his work is, that Alain Resnais was the cinema's greatest philosopher, celebrator and poet of love.