Has Alain Resnais recently become the most influential of the French New Wavers? Putting aside whether Resnais actually should be counted as part of the nouvelle vague (it's been suggested that he should rightfully be grouped with Left Bank intellectual filmmakers like Marker), consider Resnais' influence on some of the most impressive films released in the last four years:
* The mindbending memory leaps in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind prodded some reviewers to recall a similar device used by Resnais in his awesome Je t'aime, Je t'aime.
* The meta-jackoff games in Adaptation has been compared to the self-loathing fictionalizing of John Gielgud in Providence.
* Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes' simulacrum of dated melodramas, was predated by Mélo, Resnais' meta-experiment in adapting an anachronistic melodrama.
* Mulholland Dr.'s dreamlife of the dying conceit was deployed by Resnais twenty five years earlier in (again) Providence.
* More generally, David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai, and Raoul Ruiz, among others, all blur memory/dream and waking states that Resnais perfected in Last Year at Marienbad.
While Resnais' name pops up with increasing regularity in movie reviews, his films have not achieved the canonical status of, say, The Four Hundred Blows or Contempt (Hiroshima, Mon Amour comes closest). And his recent films, despite their popularity in France, are ghettoized here. None of his recent films have received proper distribution (my favorite Resnais, Same Old Song comes closest).
The conventional wisdom among movie buffs is that Alain Resnais has shifted from his early, "difficult" experiments on representing aspects of human memory to a kind of middlebrow frivolity in his late period. In truth, Resnais has remained uncompromising, and Not on the Lips, Resnais' first film in seven years, is in many ways as uncommercial as Marienbad. But instead of Robbe-Grillet, he's adapting an obscure French operetta from the Twenties with such rigid devotion to his unfashionable source that audiences fled en masse at the screening I attended.
Resnais' is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, but my reaction to Not on the Lips pretty much echoes my response to each movie (I've seen) that Resnais has made since Mon Oncle D'Amerique in 1980 (the aforementioned Same Old Song excepted). Life is a Bed of Roses, Mélo, Smoking/No Smoking and Not on the Lips are all enjoyable, intermittenly funny, tres Français farces. But these uncompromising films are suffocating in their strident adherence to artifice -- Resnais is so faithful to the theatrical blocking, deliberate timing, and stylized acting of old burlesque comedies that his films never shake the feel that they're concepts first. In other words, as funny and involving as these films often are, they're also frustratingly abstract.
Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi, Resnais regulars, are among my favorite actors, but they've been called upon to repeatedly mug in an anachronistically theatrical style that end up grating. Here thankfully, Azéma and Arditi, and indeed, the entire cast (which includes the lovely Amèlie) have fun with the broad, stylized acting style -- and a few of the operetta tunes were hilarious (especially Arditi's "Don't Come Here Just to Say Hello" tune) but ultimately, it's another one of Resnais' noble attempts at resurrecting dead art that leaves me admiring from afar. Effervescent but arid, if that makes any sense.