By Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Special to the Washington Post
His films are often seen as "intellectual" and "gloomy," but at 55, French director Alain Resnais ("Last Year in Marienbad," "Hiroshima Mon Amour," "The War Is Over") would very much like to make a comedy.
"I once worked with Lee Falk on a film adaption of 'Mandrake the Magician,' but we never got very far, because we couldn't find the right cast," he recalls. "The character was a myth. The only actor I could think of was Ronald Colman. He would have been perfect for the part."
Resnais' last film, "Providence," about an old writer fighting death and bitterly questioning his relationship with his children, has just swept up a staggering seven Césars, the French Oscars, but got mixed reviews in the United States. Curiously enough, his previous movie, "Stavisky," did just the opposite: American critics raved about it, but the French hated it.
"I have though about this," says Resnais sitting in an easy chair in his office near the Champs-Elysees, intent on his point.
"The French like things to be clear-cut, so 'Stavisky' bothered them. He was part of their national history, so they wanted a political, historical movie. The Americans will take liberties with their national heroes, they will cast stars for the part; it doesn't matter whether Billy the Kid looked like Paul Newman, or whether Bonnie and Clyde were very different from Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. They also hadn't much heard of the Stavisky affair (a political scandal in 1934 which eventually led to the Popular Front of 1936). So Jean-Paul Belmondo did not bother them in the leading part; they took the film for what it was, a reverie about the loss of youth and about death . . . And there was Charles Boyer. The Americans remembered him from all those films. Why, I remember him! He was almost like a legend to me, too."
He smiles dreamily. He is a tall man, with long, expressive hands, blue eyes and a mane of gray-white hair.
"'Providence' was different. I think the big New York critics - Vincent Canby, Pauline Kael - did not like it because it was in English. I was playing on their ground; I was no longer protected by that kind of snobbishness you can find about French films with subtitiles . . . I've also been told by American friends that they found the British accent very annoying. They will like it in a comedy, but in a drama it sounded pretentious. But we had good reviews in university towns like Boston or Houston, and also on the West Coast. And in New York, some critics liked the film: Rex Reed, of The Daily News, was so enthusiastic he wrote two stories! The problem is just that they say you must have The New York Times."
"Providence" is Resnais' first try at directing in English. "It had to be in English," he explains. "At first, I thought Mercer (his screenwriter, British playwright David Mercer) would write in English, and it would be translated. And then I received something like 15 pages of French script, and I though: I'm going to fall on my face, this thing doesn't exist. In English, I might fall on my face as well, but at least doing the real thing . . . My producers were great, they just said 'Go ahead.'"
He grins, recalling the atmosphere on the set: "I have a terrible French accent in English, a Breton accent, but the actors were very nice. I think the Americans like the French accent, thanks to Maurice Chevalier. But I don't think the English do so much, and I sometimes felt very sorry for them. I love the English tongue, and I was very, very happy working on this film."
Languages and accents are important to Resnais. He has already had three abortive English-language projects. One was an adaptation of Dick Tracy.
"I would have loved to do it," he says, "but I don't think I could have handled it. It all depended on different American accents and gangsters' slang, over which I really had no control at all."
A wry smile of regret, a shrug. All of his films are commissions anyway. Resnais insists: "I never have ideas. Producers usually approach me and ask whether I would consider working with so-and-so - an actor, a writer. We meet - sometimes for the first time, as with Mercer for 'Providence,' talk things over, and slowly, something comes out of it . . . There's nothing restrictive in a commission, you know, as long as you can work the way you feel. Take Stravinsky, for instance - and of course, I'm not comparing myself to him.He never wrote a note that hadn't been commissioned. Or take those painters who received an order for a 'Virgin and Child' . . ."
He smiles and offers coffee. Then he gets up and goes to fetch it from the machine in the corridor himself, instead of calling for a secretary. The interview takes place in his office partly because at his home "the phone would never stop ringing," partly because he is very secretive about his private life.
"I belong to the 'shy club,' you know," he jokes. "(Eric) Rohmer, (Mike) Nichols, (George) Cukor and I, we just don't speak about ourselves. And Florence is even shyer than I am."
Florence is his wife, Florence Malraux, the daughter of Andre Malraux. She is Resnais' assistant on his films.
"They met on the set of 'Last Year in Marienbad' (in 1960)" once recounted Florence's mother, Andre Malraux's ex-wife Clara, 79, also a writer. "Alain told Flo: 'I want to take you to New York,' and they went for a week there, with the film interrupted and everything. That's how they got married."
Resnais doesn't like to talk about such personal matters. Instead, he talks shop with our photographer: lenses, Leicas, Nikons, development. Technique is fundamental to him: the nuances in color, the soundtrack. He will work in the lab himself to obtain a blue or a red atmosphere. He also constructs the soundtrack like a musical score: He refers to counterpoint about the dialogues in "Marienbad," and says he has used, on Mercer's very elaborate text for "Providence," the voices of the actors as a Shubertian quintet (Dirk Bogarde being the piano, Ellen Burstyn the violin, John Gielguld the cello, David Warner the alto, and Elaine Strich the double-bass).
When working on a film, Resnais asks his scriptwriter to produce a first draft, then they lock themselves up in an apartment or in a quiet hotel in the country, and toil with a tape-recorder, writing and polishing each sentence until they are perfectly satisfied. "It takes two years," he says. "Nine months for the script, then two or three months to draw up the budget and find the money, three months to get actors free of commitments and to find the locations, two months for shooting, two to three months for editing, synchronizing, etc., and then the release with the public relations. . . ."
Resnais views himself as a craftsman. He laughs off the suggestion that he could make a low-budget film on his own, without producers or commissions. "What do you call 'low-budget?" he asks. "For one thing, I'm against not paying the actors or the crew. I mean, you really have to have a lot of nerve to ask that of people.Even so, you still have to pay for the film, the lab, some expenses and the script has to be cheap - that is, not too many locations, few actors. Okay, let's say $120,000. I just can't afford to lose that kind of money - where would I find it? These low-budget films are for rich kids."
He has a practical approach to money problems. Most ambitious films in France base their budgets on hoped-for U.S. profits - box-office returns as well as television rights. "There's a lot to be said against the habit of slicing films with commercials," he admits, "but the big networks pay very well. Whereas PBS, like Channel 13 in New York, which I like very much, pays almost nothing at all for films, just like French television . . ." So Resnais won't criticize commercial television - or, for that matter, purely commercial films, from cheap B thrillers to soap operas.
"The film industry can turn out a few 'quality' films every few years thanks to "The Other Side of Midnight.' It's just the same in the record industry, without the Osmond Brothers or some such best-selling pop singers, one could not listen to Penderecki's "The Devils of Loudun,' because it would have ebeen too expensive to record. . . ."
He evoked the years of the late 1930s in Paris, when he would cross the city to see the new American films in the Latin Quarter. As a child, he had not studied much because of poor health. "I wanted to come to Paris," he recalls. "I was born in Brittany (in Vannes, in 1922), but really, I don't remember it well. It was Paris that fascinated me."
During the dark days of the German occupation, he started studying cinema at a new institute, founded in 1943 as a gesture of defiance against the times. "I was not thinking of becoming a director then; I wanted to be a film editor so that I could be close to actors." Now he directs Boyer, but when he talks of him, his voice retains the elation of the 15-year-old discovering "Liliom" or "Shanghai."
In a country where the intellectuals take sides loudly, Resnais refuses to talk politics; and as others' films get more politically involved, his stay aloof. "You can make statistics on the number of people in prison, on the number of people tortured and on the number of people dying of hunger in a country, and you can size up its government that way," he remarks."But the rest is never clear-cut. It is like writing a screenplay, you cannot predict what will happen in advance."
© Anne-Elisabeth Moutet & The Washington Post Company.