Resnais was making art shorts a decade before the official birth of the French New Wave, building up to his mindblowing first three features by practicing his filmmaking, not just by writing and dreaming. Le Chant du styrene and Toute la memoire du monde are both wonderful, and the latter looks forward to the themes and camera work of Last Year at Marienbad. Finally got my hands on some earlier shorts with subtitles, very exciting.
Van Gogh (1948)
This and Paul Gaugin tell abridged life stories of the artists with imaginative narration, the visuals composed solely of the artists’ works, using camera movement, zooms, fades and a musical cutting rhythm. Both artists lived in Paris but moved away, and worked over the same period of time (in fact, they knew each other).
On Van Gogh: “He was a preacher, but he preached badly. The violence of his faith frightened even the faithful. It was in the process of trying to find a way to express his love for mankind that he discovered himself to be a painter.” The film gets great mileage out of the artist’s descent into madness. Katy points out that the sunflowers lose some of their power captured in a black-and-white film.
Little about this online, besides that it won an Oscar. Auteurs: “The 1948 piece Van Gogh proved so successful in its original 16 mm form that it was subsequently remade in 35 mm, winning a prize at the Venice Film Festival as well as an Academy Award.” It’s also the earliest listed Resnais film that I’ve ever seen anyone mention, although an article by Rhys Hughes confirms the earlier shorts exist.
E. Wilson in her Resnais book:
“Resnais’s aim is not merely to use Van Gogh’s art as material evidence, substituting paintings for snapshots of the artist’s life; more subtly he uses the paintings to show us the world apparently as Van Gogh saw it, to show us not merely the object world of nineteenth-century Holland and France, but to conjure the subjective images of that world perceived by the artist and captured by him on canvas. Resnais’s investigation in the film is not merely art historical therefore: he seeks already, as he will in his later films, to reveal the work and process of the imagination, the shots of reality that we view, distorted, in our mind’s eye.”
Paul Gaugin (1950)
The opening narration summarizes: “A bank employee and head of family, well-to-do, middle-aged, comfortable, discovers that he has been lying to himself. He wants, indeed he must paint. From that point on, he devotes himself exclusively to painting, and after twenty years of poverty dies alone.”
Starts in 1883, just like the previous film. Instead of poor and insane, Gaugin ends up poor and sick in Tahiti, painting shirtless native women. The commentary on Van Gogh was written by co-producers Robert Hessens and Gaston Diehl, but this one is taken from Gaugin’s own writings. Produced by Pierre Braunberger, who assisted early works by Renoir (Charleston, La Chienne) and Truffaut/Godard, ending up with Terayama Shuji of all the weird people. I wish they’d done a Pierre-Auguste Renoir film in this series.
Maybe I didn’t like this as much as Van Gogh because I don’t like the artwork as much, didn’t figure out the painter’s style, or maybe because it seems a rerun of the previous film (artist starts painting, gets obsessive, flees the city, goes poor/mad). E. Wilson, the biography author, agrees and spends more pages discussing Guernica (1950) instead. She calls this “a largely pictorial film by contrast,” points out that in Statues he would be “more self-conscious about self/other relations, colonial and post-colonial tensions.”
Statues Also Die (1952)
I’ve watched this before, but without subtitles. It is immensely improved when I understand the commentary – not that the shots and editing are anything short of excellent, but the movie is making all sorts of points about images, history, culture and colonialism which are sort of essential.