The following interview with Alain Resnais was conducted during the production of the director’s witty sci-fi adventure Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime (1968) – a major influence on Michel Gondry’s sci-fi romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
Written in collaboration with Jacques Sternberg it tells the story of a suicidal writer Claude Ridder, played by Claude Rich, who agrees to become a guinea pig for scientists exploring time travel. But the experiment goes wrong and Ridder’s relived memories give rise to seemingly random fragments of the past that center on a haunting point of romantic guilt.
What are the major problems you find in Claude Rich?
Claude Rich’s quality is to always act in a kind of haze. I’m very moved by that, meaning that he knows what the text means, of course, that he can speak it, but he knows exactly how to find the kinds of repercussions there are behind the text. It’s never just the words, we can feel that there’s a series of states of the soul he can embellish when he wants to with an extraordinary suppleness. For me, he’s a really great actor.
I’ve been able to see, on some sets, directors who look worried and restless. What struck me about you, when I saw you working, is your surprising calmness. You seem to have an Olympian calm and to really know in advance that everything will work out.
That means that I’m always trying to control myself and to think. It’s all about getting what you want. At most, you have to keep your composure and make the shoot something enjoyable because if it becomes a kind of homework or if you don’t do it in a happy atmosphere, well, I think that’s dangerous both for oneself but also for the film. I like the story René Clément told about Cocteau one day. Cocteau was seeing a film with Clément and said to him, ‘You see, this film, it’s terrible because the camera is a very dangerous animal, because the camera films not only what is in front of it, but it also films what is behind it. And, you see, in this film, they were so bored while making it that their boredom is onscreen.’ What he said really struck me and it’s maybe why I try to be as calm as possible.
Sometimes I say we’re a bit like peasants or hunters. I think that I prefer the peasant comparison: we meet a screenwriter. We talk a little about the kind of grain we could plant and then we move ahead a little. Days pass, to not say the seasons, and then a film is born or withers. Sometimes we try to do real grafts and then the grafts don’t take hold, it’s very strange, and the film falls back into a kind of oblivion and decay. But I’ve never been able to tell why some bloom and others shrivel.
But are there any stories that you wouldn’t want to film for all the money in the world?
I wouldn’t want to make a sadistic crime film, well, violent films and things like that. That would disgust me enough.
Since ‘Hiroshima mon amour’, you’ve been a strong influence on a whole aspect of new films, are you aware of this influence?
No, I’m not very aware of it. Sometimes I’m reproached, if I can say that, for some films, saying, ‘Here, it’s because of you that this type of film has been made.’ But I’ve never really felt it, I feel like these are films that would have been shot in any case. Moreover, I don’t think one can truly be influential since ideas are a bit in the air. I feel like a director (this might not be true for an auteur) is a kind of catalyst. Someone else would have done the same thing in a slightly different way but in any case I believe in a kind of inevitability in the history of art, or let’s say in the history of performing arts in any case.
There are styles that are in the air.
Exactly. That’s why I don’t believe in plagiarism, for example, except in very, very specific cases. But in general, when someone says, ‘He stole my subject!’ I don’t believe it at all. That subject was in the air. And then, it was the first person who shot it who was right to do it.
But, for yourself, do your own previous films not bother you a bit sometimes when you’re undertaking a new one?
Yes, sometimes that’s true because you’re always afraid of repeating yourself. When you suddenly realize that this shot has already been done, it’s sort of a discouraging feeling, so you have to work twice as hard to try to avoid it.
With ‘Hiroshima mon amour’ and now with ‘Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime’ it’s fairly extraordinary to see the number of films, notably French films, with the word ‘love’ or ‘live’ in the title.
Yes. People today feel so overcome by information. What I find really striking, in 1968, is the terrifying bombardment an honest man receives in a day and the amount of information his brain must filter through, at every level, be it cultural, political, public interest stories, sports. And I’m not sure my brain is really ready, at the moment, to react to this amount of information, so what’s happening? Well, to try to find a balance, he tends to withdraw into itself, maybe to try to find some kind of balance in a more active love life.
Could you give us an idea of the general tone of ‘Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime’?
The tone is kind of a mix, a little bit of Chekov and science fiction. It’s a kind of coming and going between sensations, above all. I think it’s a very sentimental and very romantic film, in the end. But the sequence of the scenes is the difficulty, it’s maybe also what’s interesting about the undertaking, the dramatic architecture is going to be based on a series of emotions. You know, the iridescence on the sea when there are layers of gas. I’m not talking about oil slicks, I’m just talking about sort of rainbow layers, like this, that float on top of the sea. I hope audiences can feel that.
– Alain Resnais: Interview During Production (courtesy of http://thefilmdesk.com)