Melding past and present alain resnais

For Alain Resnais, film stories may exist on a continuum of developing action (the present), but that continuum must include everything that is part of the main character's consciousness. For Resnais, a character is a collection of memories and past experiences. To enter the story of a particular character is to draw on those collective memories because those memories are the context for the character's current behavior. Resnais's creative challenge was to find ways to recognize the past in the present. He found the solution in editing. An example illustrates his achievement.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1960) tells the story of an actress making a film in Hiroshima. She takes a Japanese lover who reminds her of her first love, a German soldier who was killed in Nevers during the war. She was humiliated as a collaborator when she was 20 years old. Now, 14 years later, her encounter with her Japanese lover in the city destroyed to end the war takes her back to that time. The film does not resolve her emotional trauma; rather, it offers her the opportunity to relive it. Intermingled with the story are artifacts that remind her of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima.

The problem of time and its relationship to the present is solved in an unusual way. The woman watches her Japanese lover as he sleeps. His arm is twisted. When she sees his hand, Resnais cut back and forth between a close-up of the hand and a midshot of the woman. After moving in closer, he cut from the midshot of the woman to a close-up of another hand (a hand from the past), then back to the midshot and then to a full shot of the dead German lover, his hand in exactly the same position as that of the Japanese lover. The full shot shows him bloodied and dead and the film then cuts back to the present (Figures 8.6 to 8.8).

The identical presentations of the two hands provides a visual cue for moving between the past and the present. The midshot of the woman watching binds the past and present.

Later, as the woman confesses to her contemporary lover, the film moves between Nevers and Hiroshima. Her past is interwoven into her current relationship, and by the end of the film, the Japanese lover is viewed as a person through whom she can relive the past and perhaps put it behind her. Throughout the film, it is the presence of the past in her present that provides the crucial context for the woman's affair and for her view of love and relationships. The past also comes to bear, in a less direct way, on the issues of war and politics and how a person can become immersed in them. The fluidity and formal quality of Resnais's editing fuses past and present for the character.

The issue of time and its relationship to behavior is a continuing trend in most of Resnais's work. From the blending of the past and present of Auschwitz in Night and Fog (1955) to the role of the past in the present identity of a woman in Muriel (1963) to the elevation of the past to the self-image of the main character in La Guerre Est Finie (1966), the exploration of editing solutions to narrative problems has been the key to Resnais's work.

Resnais carried on his exploration of memory and the present in Providence (1977), which embraces fantasy as well as memory. Later, he used the intellect, fantasy, and the present in Mon Oncle d'Amerique (1980).

Figure 8.6 Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1960. Courtesy Janus Films Company. Still provided by British Film Institute.
Figure 8.7 Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1960. Courtesy Janus Films Company. Still provided by British Film Institute.
Hiroshima Mon Amour Movie
Figure 8.8 Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1960. Courtesy Janus Films Company. Still provided by British Film Institute.

The greater the layers of reality, the more interesting the challenge for Resnais. Always, the solution lies in the editing.

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