He started his career doing documentary shorts, winning an Oscar early on for a documentary on Van Gogh. He came to fame for his unique documentary shorts of The '50s which are seen as anticipating the genre of the "film-essay", including Toute la mémoire du monde shot in Paris's National Library, followed with Les Statues Meurent Aussi (co-directed with Chris Marker of La Jetée fame), a documentary that attracted controversy for its fierce denunciation of French colonialism.
However, the most famous of these films is Night and Fog, the first major documentary on the Holocaust, notable for juxtaposing archival footage with shots of the camps 10 years later. It pioneered several new techniques and was called the greatest film ever made by François Truffaut, it would go on to inspire many later films, including Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.
Resnais' distinct trademark made its appearance in these films, his unique approach to editing, camera movement, unconventional use of voice-over (they are often poetic and suggestive and don't tell the story or character motivations). He also edited the works of other film-makers, including Agnès Varda's La Pointe court. Although he would later be associated with the French New Wave, Resnais, along with Varda, Jacques Demy, Chris Marker are seen as belonging to the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) group. They were all politically on the left (the New Wave boys contrary to their rebellious bad boy reputation were actually Bourgeois Bohemian and apolitical at the start, only tilting left later). Resnais freely associated with France's literary and cultural scene. This is apparent in the fact that many of his screenwriters are a "who's who" of France's post-war experimental writers: Alain-Robbe Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Raymond Queneau, Jorge Semprun, among many many others.
His first feature film began as a commission to make a short documentary on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but Resnais instead made it a fiction film that was feature length. This was Hiroshima Mon Amour, which invented the technique of intercutting scenes with brief flashbacks to suggest a short flash of memory. It is considered one of the defining films of the time and has been called the equivalent of "The Birth of a Nation for French cinema". His next film would be Last Year at Marienbad, which both polarized viewers and became an international success being seen as "the arthouse film" or as Pauline Kael defined it, "come dressed as the sick soul of Europe party". Modern viewers might note it for being a film Don Draper sees in Mad Men. These films inspired works such as Point Blank, Petulia and several of Peter Greenaway and Steven Soderbergh's films. Resnais' later films are relatively obscure in the Anglophone but are likewise considered masterpieces by those who have seen them. He did enjoy one later popular international success with Mon oncle d'Amérique which has his quirky experimental style and wit.
Resnais is considered one of cinema's most versatile film-makers, famous for never making the same film twice, and making films in multiple genres and style. He has made documentaries, politically oriented dramas, gangster films, musical films, comedies, science-fiction, and so on, drawing from a wide range of references, classical and contemporary Hollywood cinema, comic books, musicals, experimental avant-garde literature and theatre, and so on. Resnais would continue to innovate until his death at the age of 91.
- Big Name Fan: Several of them, but Alfred Hitchcock was a big one and the feeling was mutual. Cinephiles note that Resnais included a cardboard silhouette of Hitchcock in Last Year at Marienbad (visible in the 12 minute mark on the right side of the screen).
- The Muse: Sabine Azéma, Resnais's second wife, who acted in most of his later films.
- Postmodernism: Almost every single one of his films. Whereas most artists start with a character or a plot and develop their film from there, Resnais noted that he usually started with a form.Resnais: "There cannot be any communication except through form. If there is no form, you cannot create emotion in the spectator."
- What Could Have Been: He planned a collaboration with Stan Lee in The '70s (yes that Stan Lee). It involved original ideas The Inmates and The Monster Maker. It didn't pan out alas.
Selected Filmography :
- Statues Also Die ("Les statues meurent aussi", co-directed with Chris Marker, 1953)
- Night and Fog (see above, 1956)
- Toute la mémoire du monde translation (1956)
- Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
- Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
- Muriel (1963)
- Je t'aime, Je t'aime (1968)
- Stavisky... (starring Jean-Paul Belmondo with music by Stephen Sondheim, 1974)
- Providence (his only English language film, with Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Ellen Burstyn, 1977)
- Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980)
- Smoking / No Smoking (1993)
- Same Old Song ("On connaît la chanson", 1997)
- Coeurs (2006)
- Vous n'avez encore rien vu ("You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet", 2012)