When I awoke this morning to the unhappy news that Alain Resnais, the French director of “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and “Night and Fog” among many, many others, had passed away at the age of 92, my first thought was how different the moment felt to most other announcements of veteran artists' departures — more sorely immediate than the usual solemn, remove-your-hat mourning. Most nonagenarian directors who die do so with their life's work complete; Resnais's certainly wasn't lacking, but the man wasn't finished either.
Only three weeks ago, Resnais premiered his 19th feature, “Life of Riley,” in Competition at the Berlin Film Festival to warm applause and even a couple of trophies. The jury awarded him the Alfred Bauer Prize for “a film that opens new perspectives on cinematic art” — an award that, at first blush, seems an odd fit for one as comfortingly seasoned and familiar as Resnais, until you realize that the criteria fits the entire filmography of a filmmaker who never settled for formal complacency or consistency. How else to describe a career that broke through with a stark, intuitive 32-minute documentary about Holocaust atrocities, and ended with a pair of loopily self-reflexive, theatrically inspired comedies on the nature of performance and existence, with any number of shifts in style, shape and register in between?
Now's the time to admit that I didn't see “Life of Riley,” if not by choice. Scheduling conflicts conspired against it, and the film thankfully arrived in Berlin with no pompous air of finality; here, it seemed, was the latest Alain Resnais, not the last. One thought it safe to ignore the encroaching demands of mortality and assume there'd be several more, that the spry Frenchman would chase Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira, 105-years-old-and-kicking, into the never (or whenever). I often like to imagine such artists take as a challenge Woody Allen's crack that “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.” Why not shoot for both?
By all accounts, in the unlikely event that Resnais had a final film in mind, “Life of Riley” — his third adaptation of the work of droll, brittle British playwright Alan Ayckbourn — wasn't it, even if it does address terminal illness. Its predecessor, the Anouilh-referencing “You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet!,” was advertised at its 2012 Cannes premiere as more of a false farewell, a confluence of many of the director's favorite neuroses, avenues of investigation and, of course, actors — including his wife of the last 16 years, the wired, firework-haired Sabine Azéma. It was far from my favorite of his works, perhaps because it was so singularly his invention that I never felt fully invited into it.
At its best, however, Resnais's cinema finely walks the other side of that line — the films are at once esoteric and intimate, like a secret you've been told in confidence. His 1959 feature-length debut, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” chronicles the end of an affair between a Japanese architect and French actress (last year's Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva, whose career was here cemented and, for so long, defined) with a spidery, non-linear structure that gradually connects this very private parting to a larger lament for Second World War victims, living and dead. Often hailed as a standard-setting work (alongside direct contemporaries “Breathless” and “The 400 Blows”) of the French nouvelle vague, it had an aesthetic discipline and poetic architecture all its own. Resnais never regarded himself as a card-carrying New Wave member, though his work obviously joined that of Godard, Truffaut et al in forging the new European modernism.
As playful as it is profound, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” may still be his finest feature. It's certainly the film that most obviously bridges the serene, elegiac documentarian Resnais began his career as — as best exemplified by the still-brisk, still-devastating “Night and Fog” — with the whirling narrative experimentalist he became, as best exemplified by his next feature, “Last Year at Marienbad.” In that 1961 puzzle-box of a film — built as exquisitely and meticulously as if with tweezers — unnamed characters engage in a dance of time, space and basic human fact; it's a romance of sorts, in which the lovers cannot agree if they've even met. To this day, critics disagree about what it all means, and even what it's all worth: it's that contentious curiosity, both of form and of spirit, that has saved Resnais's oeuvre from ossification.
Resnais's braided preoccupations with temporality, memory and mortality continued through 1963's “Muriel,” 1966's “The War is Over” and 1968's “Je t'aime, je t'aime” — the last of these an extraordinary science-fiction vision of life lived out of sequence that was set to premiere (and widely tipped to triumph) at Cannes, before the famous nationwide spate of wildcat strikes in May 1968 brought the festival to a premature close. (One wonders how much the eternally nonconformist Resnais appreciated the irony of his own celebration being thwarted by a surge in youth rebellion.)
There was less universal critical consensus for much of Resnais's ensuing work: “Stavisky,” a handsome, Sondheim-scored biopic of corrupt financier Alexandre Stavisky, was an unexpected retreat into relative convention, though his first English-language effort, “Providence,” remains an angular, richly literate curio, with the director's signature structural elasticity balancing multiple fictions. (It was headlined by John Gielgud, who regarded it as his own best screen work; Resnais's sociable, communal way with an ensemble could hardly have been more accommodating to stage veterans.)
I'll leave it to writers more thoroughly versed than I to tackle the shades and shifts of his later work, much of which I either haven't seen or feel I haven't fairly observed. (The French, in particular, adore his chanson-tastic musical comedy of manners “Same Old Song,” for example; I feel entirely left out of the joke.)
But the exceptions are sparkling ones. I discovered his first Ayckbourn adaptation, the crisp, wittily woven double feature “Smoking/No Smoking,” when I was 15 and directing a production of Ayckbourn's one-act comedy “Between Mouthfuls” at high school — its limber arrangement of what could have been fussy sitcom material was as inspiring then as it is now. 2009's “Wild Grass,” meanwhile, was a deliciously bonkers provocation: both tender and excitingly reckless in its observation of human longing, and the realization of subconscious urges.
The timing of Resnais's passing, on the eve of mainstream cinema's biggest night of self-celebration, is infelicitous, but only as cruelly ironic as you want it to be. (Is there a good day for a master to die?) I've noticed a number of cinephile types on Twitter and elsewhere observing that this loss — after what's been an undeniably cruel month for leading lights of the artform — renders the Oscars insignificant, or at least more so than usual. (Resnais himself was never nominated by the Academy, though four of his films — “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” “Last Year at Marienbad,” “The War is Over” and the dense, dizzying intellectual experiment “My American Uncle” — were recognized by the writers' branch.)
That's one way to mourn, but such lofty separation of art from, well, other art runs counter to Resnais's own instincts as a porous being whose frisky creativity slowed down only last night: up to the very end, he was open to all ideas.