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Alain Resnais

Film director

Film director

Born June 3, 1922; Died March 1, 2014.

Alain Resnais, who has died aged 91, was one of the most divisive figures in European cinema. Some critics thought he was a genius. Some thought he was boring and pretentious. And some just could not make up their minds.

Resnais emerged onto the film scene in the 1950s, at pretty much the same time as Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard, who knowingly borrowed from Hollywood and created their own style, fast-paced and full of attitude. They were labelled the Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave.

Resnais was often lumped in with the New Wave. However he was never really a part of that movement.

A distinctive bohemian figure with a shock of white hair and trademark dark glasses, Resnais made enigmatic, sometimes beautiful films that did not fit the New Wave template. They were slow, difficult, if not impossible to understand - arthouse cinema at its most challenging, or frustrating.

In later years he became fascinated by the English playwright and farceur Alan Ayckbourn. He made trips incognito to Yorkshire, where Ayckbourn was based, to watch his plays and he eventually turned several into films. It was as if Woody Allen had suddenly announced he would be making the next few Star Wars films.

And yet maybe there was an element of farce in Last Year in Marienbad (1961). It was about a man and woman who meet at a chateau, and he claims they had an affair the previous year, but she insists they have never met.

The film was shot in black and white and the nameless characters move like figures on a chess board, talking, posing, casting long shadows across manicured lawns. Is it a memory? Is it a fantasy? Is it a prophecy? Nothing is resolved. You either see it as an elegant, metaphysical mystery or utter twaddle.

Resnais and his writer Alain Robbe-Grillet could not even agree what the film was about. It influenced the work of other film-makers, including the English director Peter Greenaway, who enigmatically claimed it the most successful film of all time.

Resnais himself insisted that he was no intellectual or auteur - he rarely wrote the screenplays for his films, and he said that being a film director was just a job like any other.

The son of a pharmacist, he was born in 1922 in the town of Vannes in Britanny. He trained as an actor, enrolled in the new film school in Paris and made several short documentaries about artists. One of them, Van Gogh (1948), won an Oscar.

Much of his youth had been under the Nazi occupation and he would make several films about aspects of the Second World War, including Night and Fog (1955), a documentary about the concentration camps.

The war was also an element in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which revolves around two nameless characters, a French actress and a Japanese architect, who was in the army and whose family was in Hiroshima the day it was bombed. They have had a brief affair. The actress previously had a relationship with a German soldier and the locals shaved her head. The point is made that many of those who survived the Hiroshima atom bomb also lost their hair, and there are other comparisons between the plight of the two protagonists and Hiroshima.

Some commentators felt Resnais' juxtaposition of the troubled love life of a French collaborator and the mass slaughter of the atomic bombs was simply wrong-headed, though many critics would argue that his earliest films are his best.

Resnais directed around 30 feature films, in a career spanning almost 70 years and most got some sort of commercial release in the UK.

He admired much about English culture, shot the family drama Providence (1977) in English, with John Gielgud and Dirk Bogarde; and in On Connait la Chanson (1997), aka Same Old Song, he borrowed Dennis Potter's technique of having characters suddenly start singing popular old songs. The film was dedicated to Potter.

Resnais read about Ayckbourn in an English magazine and was sufficiently intrigued that he went to see one of his plays in Scarborough, along with Sabine Azema, one of his regular actresses, who later became his second wife.

"We were utterly bowled over by its inventiveness," he told an interviewer a few years ago, "and I started going year after year until it became a sort of pilgrimage.

"One year, one of the actors took Alan aside and said, 'You see that white-haired man in the second row? I think it's the French film director Alain Resnais.' Alan laughed, but he was sufficiently intrigued to approach me. And that's how I ended up making Smoking/No Smoking and Private Fears in Public Places."

Resnais's diptych of Smoking and No Smoking (1993) was based on Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges. Coeurs (2006) was an adaptation of Private Fears in Public Places, with the setting switched from England to France. Resnais's last film, an adaptation of Ayckbourn's Life of Riley premiered at the Berlin Film Festival just last month.

In 1969 he married Florence Malraux, the daughter of the writer and statesman Andre Malraux. She had been an assistant director on several of Resnais's films. The marriage ended in divorced and Resnais married Sabine Azema in 1998 in Scarborough. She survives him.

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