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Resnais may have worked with some of the leading European intellectuals of his generation (Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Semprun), but he’s always expressed a deep love of pop culture as well. Jonathan Rosenbaum likes to note that Resnais would tell interviewers in the 60s that his biggest influence was Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip; and in recent years, he’s claimed to take inspiration from The X-Files, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the graphic novels of Alan Moore. Standing at the intersection of such varied points of reference, Resnais occupies a singular place in movie history. I’d also argue that no other filmmaker’s demonstrated a greater curiosity about how the imagination works—as an interpreter of national culture, as a source of political change, and as a mysterious world unto itself.Muriel and La guerre, Resnais developed complex editing strategies to depict subjective experiences like hallucination and post-traumatic stress (Synecdoche, New York and Martha Marcy May Marlene are two recent examples that would be impossible without his example). But after 1980’s Mon oncle d’Amerique, Resnais abandoned his montage-centered style for one that may seem more old-fashioned. His films from this point can be deliberately theatrical—several of them (Melo, Smoking/No Smoking, Private Fears in Public Places) are adaptations of plays. I find these films every bit as mysterious as Last Year at Marienbad or Muriel. They combine the realistic and the phony to dreamlike effect, but unlike his 60s films, their uncanny vibe can’t be tied to any one character’s perspective. These are haunted films (though it’s hard to say by whom or what), and Resnais’s sympathy for his often-lonely characters deepens their emotional impact.
I’m looking forward to spending more time with these movies. In the last class I taught at Facets, I learned as much as the people I was teaching, thanks to the far-reaching discussions that following the films. This format should help in uncovering the mysteries of Resnais’s work.