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The fascination that literary modernism has with thingness, that essential static being of inanimate objects, has been the subject of much critical attention. This paper seeks to add to that body of criticism by looking at Alain Resnais’ films, specifically referring to Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Muriel as examples of cinematic modernism which further complicate modernism’s obsessive re-configuration of the status of things in relation to the human lives that exist among them. By the turn of the twentieth century, a concern with the limits of human perception of the world was at the fore. Buffeted by Darwin, unsettled by Freud, and subject to two enormous wars, it is no wonder that Western Europe questioned the knowable nature of the Cartesian/Kantian universe. The human animal under modernism, surrounded by looming socio-economic forces, suddenly finds himself facing what Joyce calls the ineluctable modality of the real, plagued by the realisation that to be human is to be only a very small part of a bigger whole (I am thinking here especially of cinematic masterpieces like Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times, which are clearly part of a trajectory of paranoiac reactions to the encroachment of machines into modern life). Inanimate objects, long seen as mere tools, are increasingly reconceptualised as having a powerful selfhood (thingness) and inhabiting a universe in which man plays only a little part. The spatial solidity of the walls in Resnais’ Night and Fog echo “humanity’s never-ending cry” (the last words spoken by the narrative voice), and Hiroshima Mon Amour complicates the connection between man and space. But perhaps the most interesting of Resnais’ films in this sense is Muriel. Set in post-WWII rebuilt France where people proclaim they “haven’t forgotten [their] street just because it was bombed” even as they scramble to rebuild, efface, get over/forget, the very earth holds stubbornly to the life that has passed. The recalcitrance of the soil, its refusal to give up the history that has bled into it, is typified by one repeated image: a modern building that remains completely empty because of structural problems, a gigantic ugly monument that will not be masked or given a purpose. The act of rebuilding, of forgetting, is thus made far from simple—on the one hand, the citizens of the town want to forget their bloody history, but still it remains, clinging on to the walls and bricks and gaping windows of the empty (faceless? Lifeless?) building, insistently filmed by Bernard’s tortured eye. Filmic modernism thus echoes the literary in its complicated attitude to time passing, and in its difficult acceptance of the relationality between time past, time present and time future.


This work was originally published in " Film and Literary Modernism," edited by Robert McParland and published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.



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