Alain Resnais is one of my favorite directors, and yet I only really love one of his films (Last Year at Marienbad). Hell, before this week, I had only seen one other (Hiroshima, Mon Amour). But after seeing Je t'aime, je t'aime and (deep breath now) Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour, I can't help but love him all the more for what he does, even if what he does only makes distant sense to me.
More than almost any other director I can think of (more than any other I can think of at the time), Resnais is fascinated with and willing to grapple with the very form of cinema. It doesn't surprise me at all that he entered film school with the notion that "there was something important in cinema, which was the manipulation of time through editing" (Foundas). In all four of these films, the past is a nearly tangible presence, as it, the present, and the future and/or imaginary events become fused together, weaving in and out of each other even as some essential narrative barrels forward. For anyone interested in the movies, this is an incredibly exciting concept, made all the more so by the fact that Resnais was working in this mold over forty years ago (this year was the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and Resnais still has a new film playing at festivals worldwide).
So that's why, even when I find his execution a tad clumsy (the phrase, "even his failures demonstrate his ambition" was never more fitting), I can't help but love the director himself, and his films as an extent of his ongoing experiment. In Je t'aime, a man is released from a hospital after attempting suicide and instantly enrolled to be the first human experiment in time travel - what follows is clearly the inspiration for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the man becomes lost in time, reliving fragments of the relationship that drove him to depression. While his execution is far from perfect (the gravity of the situation isn't quite as tangible as it should be), the ideas inherent in the conceit are fascinating, and one can fill in the blanks without much effort.
Muriel is much more difficult, perhaps moreso than Last Year at Marienbad. Then again, with Muriel, I'm actually convinced after the first viewing that there is something happening here; I was less than certain that was the case with Marienbad, though a subsequent viewing would disprove that. I'm still totally unsure what to make of it, and its very liberal use of jump cuts to weave through time makes it impossible to forge a grasp on the narrative the first time through, or even to be certain of your emotional footing, something that wasn't a problem with Marienbad.
But again, these feel like minor quibbles when taking into account the ambition of Resnais' vision - to call it revolutionary is to rely on cliches, but without a doubt its effects are keenly felt today. You have him to thank pretty much anytime a director plays with continuity and/or reality (Vanilla Sky, Eternal Sunshine, Memento, The Science of Sleep, Synecdoche, New York, among many others owe a tremendous debt), never mind his accomplishments in cinematography (the hallways in The Shining would not be nearly so endless if not for Last Year at Marienbad).
Beyond sorting out specific influences, artistic mediums becomes greater when certain artists approach them. Film itself is better for Alain Resnais having worked in it.