I’ve read that André Breton and his surrealist compatriots would sometimes spend the evening going from one movie theater to another. They’d show up to a film after it had started, stay until they could figure out the plot, then leave so they could repeat the process with another film. This game was consistent with the surrealists’ mission of locating the nonsensical within the everyday and divining a hidden logic within the nonsensical.
I often brought up this story during the six-week course I taught on Alain Resnais, the great French filmmaker who passed away yesterday at the age of 91. Resnais cited Breton as one of his biggest influences, claiming the surrealist author taught him to regard the imagination as part of life. The director’s great contribution to cinema might be described as an effort to re-create the surrealists’ moviegoing game within individual films. His revolutionary approach to montage, which he began with his short documentaries of the early 1950s and first brought to flower in his debut feature Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), enabled his narratives to move fluidly between objective and subjective points of view; between past, present, and “conditional future” (as Resnais described the flash-forwards in La Guerre est Finie); and between documentary realism and dream sequences. Yet the sense of constant drift never feels random. Even in his recent Wild Grass (which Jonathan Rosenbaum has described as Resnais’s most purely surrealist film), there’s a palpable sense of order behind the sudden changes in tone and onscreen behavior. That Resnais never spells out the guiding logic of his films contributes to what makes them so uniquely frightening.
Few movies convey our fear of the unknown as powerfully as Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Love Unto Death (1984), or Resnais’s theatrical adaptations Mélo (1986), Private Fears in Public Places (2006), and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012), in which the deliberately phony-looking sets seem like flimsy refuges from an encroaching void (as I wrote last summer, when you watch these movies in a theater, it feels like you’re fleeing that void along with the characters). But in surrealist tradition, Resnais’s films approach the unknown through highly familiar forms. Often mistaken for a highbrow for collaborating with such writers as Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Jorge Semprun, Resnais was in fact a big fan of musical theater, H.P. Lovecraft (a source of inspiration for his 1977 Providence), The X-Files, and above all comic books. He long cited Chester Gould alongside Breton as his greatest artistic hero, and once he claimed his affinity for nonchronological storytelling came from having to read issues of Terry and the Pirates out of order during World War II, when shipments of international comics often got waylaid en route to France.
Resnais loved these forms of popular art much like the surrealists loved mainstream movies—as points of entry into the collective subconscious. Now that he’s gone, it feels as though one of the largest of these portals has been forever shut.
Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.