Memories of Great Artists, an Archive, and Plastics

DIRECTED BY ALAIN RESNAIS/1957, 1949, 1949, 1956, 1948


If short films did not exist, Alain Resnais surely would have invented them”. 

– Jean-Luc Godard

I feel as though I’m always traveling towards some unknown destination”.

– Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother

Alain Resnais, of course, directed plenty more than short films.  Though associated with the Left Bank contingent of the French New Wave (there for the early days), Resnais went on to have a vibrant, diverse, and quite unpredictable career.  Major early works include the seminal Holocaust short Night and Fog (1956) as well as the more experimental features Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961).  Later notables include the acclaimed Wild Grass  (2009) and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! (2012), shortly prior to his death in 2014.  Indeed, a destination he could never have foreseen.

Yet, before all of that, the venerable and versatile Resnais kept busy launching his filmmaking career.  Teaming with producer Pierre Braunberger (who’d soon go on to produce Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie [1962] and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player [1960]), Resnais helmed (or co-helmed) five interesting short films that would pave the way for both.  Now, thanks to expert digital restoration undertaken through the French government, all five of these films are available stateside on Blu-ray through Icarus Films.

Van Gogh (1948, 18 minutes)

Of the five films, the two with the greatest name recognition are the least noteworthy.      The matching portraits of famed frenemy painters, 1948’s Van Gogh and 1949’s Paul Gauguin.  Both are entirely composed of the artists’ works, with dramatic voice overs.  With the great paintings reduced to black and white, it must be said that much of what makes them compelling is not present.  That said, Resnais’ Van Gogh is still more engaging than the painstaking animated feature-length misfire, Loving Vincent (2017).  

Resnais carefully uses both dissolves and straight cuts in his lulling montaging of the artists’ paintings, focusing on the fusions of line, shape, texture of paint on canvas, and brushstrokes.  If Gauguin registers more on a human level (the eyes, the thoughts, the figures, their surroundings), Van Gogh’s work tends to land here in more varied and fevered ways; a grander lucidity peeking out to varying degrees.  The pair were just alike enough to ultimately bristle one another away for good, their mutually assured poverty ultimately running both lives and careers into deathly infernal tailspins.  Resnais gets all of this.  In his respective eighteen and thirteen-minute narratively fluid profiles, we are both coaxed into their worlds and educated.

Paul Gauguin (1949, 13 minutes)

Van Gogh netted Resnais and Braunberger the 1950 Oscar for Best Short Subject.  The path to that success paved the way for the more challenging Guernica (1949, 14 minutes), a similar presentation with the work of Picasso.  Guernica is both a farther-reaching piece insofar as it deals with the human cost of the 1937 bombing of the titular Spanish town, but is also abstract and cerebral.  

The longest of these five films is Resnais’ follow-up to Night and Fog, the profile of the sprawling Bibliothèque nationale de France, All the World’s Memory: Toute La Mémoire Du Monde (1956, 21 minutes).  Resnais takes a wonderfully whimsical approach to exploring this vast repository of humankind’s accumulated published works.  The camerawork, often defying gravity like some sort of rudimentary drone, is a flying compliment to the above-and-beyond nature of the Bibliothèque itself.  Toute La Mémoire Du Monde is anything but stodgy, and a fitting early dwelling on the process and nature of human memory- a major Resnais theme if ever there was one.

The Song Of Styrene: Le Chant Du Styrène (1957, 14 minutes)

Lastly, The Song of Styrene: Le Chant Du Styréne (1957, 14 minutes).  This odd, full color duck exists thanks to a commission from the French aluminum conglomerate, Pechiney.  The only film of these five to break out of black and white while also going widescreen, The Song of Styrene presents unlikely art house looks at the manufacturing process of plastic.  The elements, covered in inhuman closeups, appear like some sort of alien plant life.   Witty renowned French poet and author Raymond Queneau provides the film’s narration in rhyming couplets.  On the disc, this film actually plays first.  A strange choice perhaps, but then again, not really.  Resnais cast a wide net for himself; why not cast it early with that one word: plastics?

The five shorts presented on this disc can be seen as effective bridges to where both Resnais and Braunberger would be headed, and their past work.  Resnais’ own career in making short films can be traced back as far as 1936.  Many of those very early shorts are profiles of contemporary fine artists- an obvious stair-step to Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.  As for Braunberger, the short fold-out insert included with the Blu-ray is primarily a transcribed interview with the late producer’s daughter, Laurence Braunberger, covering his subsequent career as well as his collaborations with Resnais.  Also covered are the restoration of these films, all of which look exceptional on this disc.  

Devotees of classic French cinema, particularly the work of the Nouvelle Vague directors, should be inclined not to overlook this interesting release.