My notes on the Alain Resnais science fiction film.Alain Resnais played games with time and memory throughout his oeuvre – from Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year in Marienbad to Providence and Smoking/No Smoking – but his reputation as a pillar of art cinema means he is too rarely thought about as an important science fiction filmmaker: though, in interviews, he’s always shown himself more au fait with sf than the cineastes asking the questions (I remember being impressed by his dictum ‘if a new book by Theodore Sturgeon is published tomorrow, I’ll buy it’ in Focus on SF Film). This 1968 film is his most obvious work of genre science fiction, and is a key influence on the development of a strain of cinema which includes the work of David Cronenberg, David Fincher, Charlie Kaufman and Christopher Nolan. It also has one of the coolest designs for a time machine ever envisioned – something like a big white human organ with form-fitting soft interiors, suitable for an ultimate trip into headspace or a return to the womb.
Claude Ridder (Claude Rich), who has survived a suicide attempt, is recruited out of hospital by a cadre of labcoats who have perfected their time-travel process to the point when lab mice no longer explode and want a human volunteer who isn’t too concerned whether he lives or dies to be the first sapient to voyage back in his own personal time. He is supposed to go back a year to a precise moment (four o’clock) and then return, but – like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5 (which came out a year later) – gets unstuck in time and ping-pongs around the last few crowded years in his life, sometimes looping over and over particular moments and sometimes jumbling things up so that a naked girl in a bathtub from a humorous anecdote shows up in the office where he once toiled on advertising flyers before meeting up with his late partner Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), whom he was accused of killing in a Glasgow hotel, and leaving to reinvent himself as a novelist. A mouse, his fellow time-traveller, also shows up from time to time: ‘what’s a mouse doing on the beach?’ ‘maybe he’s on holiday’. There are several mysteries – how did Catrine die and why does he feel responsible? – and a great many strands, including Claude’s recruitment for the experiment and his suicide attempt, are woven in an ever-faster, indeed quite dizzying tapestry.
The film uses no master-shots or entrances and exits, just cuts from the middle of one scene to the next, often with Claude himself as the only carry-over after the manner of the character caught on film in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr: Resnais stages and edits this effect perfectly, so that a pose or an expression links together scenes set years apart, and we have a sense of the rituals and repetitions which are a part of everyday life both as a comfort and a trap. Of course, this being a movie experiment, it goes wrong and Claude is lost in time … but there is a conclusion of sorts, as we finally get all the puzzle-pieces we need to work out what has happened, if too late to save anyone. Resnais, as often, is a witty filmmaker, filling the frame with sly jokes and absurdities: there’s a whole layer of Belgian confusion which involves using two languages which often repeat and contradict, and Rich is as much a sad-faced comic as a tragic hero.