Monday, March 10, 2014

"The War Is Over"

On the 1st of March 2014, Cinema lost one of its most fearless adventurers at the age of 91. The director of such important milestones as “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Nuit Et Brouillard” (Night And Fog), Alain Resnais spent his long and fruitful career reinventing his craft and pursuing new ways to push the boundaries of cinematic language. While “La Guerre Est Finie” (The War Is Over) does not quite reach the heights of “Mon Oncle D’Amérique” (My American Uncle), “Providence” or “L’Année Dernière À Marienbad” (Last Year At Marienbad”), it remains a significant work of art both as a representation of the radical politics of 1960s Europe – both stylistically and thematically – and as an introduction to Resnais’s films for uninitiated beginners. I still have too much to learn to truly do justice to the richness of the film, but I shall do my best anyway.

The film stars Italian-French actor Yves Montand as a Spanish communist agent sneaking back and forth from Spain to France to meet fellow party members and distribute propaganda. This is the first of several films - including Costa-Gavras’s masterful “L’Aveu” (The Confession) – in which Montand would play a communist confronted with the party’s unpleasant realities, mirroring his own political journey from ardent communist to moderate leftist. “La Guerre Est Finie” is not so much a criticism of the communist ideology so much as the portrait of a man whose personal experience of reality conflicts with his fellow travelers’ blind and dangerous idealism.

The film opens with Diego Mora (Yves Montand) sneaking back to France under one of his many aliases in order to warn his superiors of a recent sting operation in Madrid that resulted in the capture and killing of many fellow agents. The scene alternates between shots of Diego and his accomplice in the car exchanging dialogue, point-of-view shots of the car’s exterior surroundings and seemingly incongruous shots representing, among other things:

-          Diego running from an airport to the very car he’s in.

-          A man opening an apartment door from the point of view of his unseen visitor.

-          The same man coming out of a door next to another door in which another man had previously gone through.

-          Diego running towards a queue.

-          Diego running in a train.

-          Diego running to catch a train.

-          Diego missing a train.

-          Diego running out of a car and into a train station.

-          Diego meeting the previously-mentioned man and embracing him.

All of this is set to Diego’s accomplice complaining about Spain’s lack of petrol stations and how he’d be indulging in tourist activities if it weren’t for him. This gives the audience a taste of what the rest of the film’s experience will be: A constant voyage in time and the mind, the present reality frequently interrupted by brief trips into Diego’s mind as he flashes to the past, the future or his imagining of past, future or present events elsewhere. Some shots – such as individual women each shown walking towards the same bar – do not make sense until later scenes connect with them – in the aforementioned case, when Diego goes to said bar to spy on the naive idealistic young daughter (Geneviève Bujold) of a man who has willingly lent him his identity.

These flashes are frequently related to Diego’s central problem: He has returned to Paris to warn his superiors about the sting operation, only for them to chastise him for leaving just as fellow agent Juan (Jean-François Rémi) was on his way to Madrid to meet him. Worsening his comrade’s dangerous situation is the refusal of the party leaders to take the threat seriously and their insistence in going along with a planned general strike. The flashes – as well as the aliases – illustrate Diego’s fragmented, wandering state of mind, but they also represent one of the major recurring themes in Alain Resnais’s work: The relationship between time and one’s personal perception of it, often in the form of real or imagined memories. This makes certain scenes particularly ambiguous, such as the scene in Diego’s apartment after his long-time lover Marianne (the exquisitely androgynous Ingrid Thulin) tells him she wants a child from him. Diego is shown entering a room to check on a sleeping boy. We naturally assume it to be Marianne’s child from a previous relationship and the clear sounds of Diego’s movements and activity – as opposed to the silence of the flashes – encourage us to perceive it as real. Yet the child is never mentioned again. Whether he exists or not, the connection is clear.

In that respect “La Guerre Est Finie”, in defiance of its seemingly optimistic title – taken from fascist General Francisco Franco’s own words at the end of the Spanish Civil War – is a bittersweet portrait of a lost cause known only to its protagonist as such. Diego communicates his thoughts in the form of highly literary voice-overs that resemble prose poems – another recurring element of Resnais’s work. In these, Diego gives the viewer a summary of the events the pictures hint at, all while referring to himself in the second person, as if consciously trying to remind himself of what he has experienced and what he is currently experiencing. Diego’s self-talk conveys bitterness and disillusion combined with envy for his fellow travelers’ idealism.

This gradual political disenchantment is matched by his relationship with the film’s major female characters, Ingrid Thulin’s Marianne and Geneviève Bujold’s Nadine. Diego spends his first night in Paris with the latter, enjoying a one-night-stand with her just after she remarks that he is indeed old enough to be her father – a statement and sequence made more disturbing today in light of Montand’s real-life stepdaughter Catherine Allégret’s allegations that he sexually abused her from the age of five until adulthood.

Ugly hindsight aside, Nadine’s youth and candid enthusiasm for Diego’s work acts as a counterpoint to both his own lassitude and his superiors’ stubborn denial of reality, as well as a bittersweet reminder of his own obsolescence. More importantly, she solidifies her position as Marianne’s opposite number – despite the two never meeting or, indeed, seeming aware of each other’s existence. Marianne believes in communism implicitly, and shares the party’s optimism about a glorious general strike that will bring down Franco’s fascist regime; so much so that she is begging Diego to cease his life of lies and absences, and to take her with him to Spain so that they can raise a child there together.

Diego’s love for Marianne is indisputable. However, he is all too aware that her dream, much like his boss’s, is impossible. And while he is more open with her about his frustrations than with most other characters, she is as incapable to convince as they are. The only thing Diego can truly do is take as much advantage as he can of what little bursts of happiness and pleasure he has left. The most remarkable of such bursts is one of the most beautiful and erotic sex scenes ever put to film, set after Marianne’s friend Bill (Gérard Séty) and his annoyingly inquisitive wife Agnès (Annie Fargue) have finally left the two alone together. The scene is edited in close shots of Marianne’s body parts – feet, back, face, head & torso – and different steps in the progress of their sexual act, with little obvious continuity. Ingrid Thulin’s magnificent acting deserves to be credited for this scene’s beauty: Equally overwhelmed with bliss and sadness, halfway across tears and pleasure, she vividly captures a scary and mysterious emotional place seldom seen in the depiction of sexual relations between two lovers. The scene is reminiscent of the stunning post-opening credits close-ups of Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada’s mingled bodies in “Hiroshima Mon Amour”.


Like his aforementioned masterpiece, Resnais creates a parallel between love and politics, in this case connecting romantic/sexual desire with political desire, the love of a woman and the love of a cause. Just as he knows that any attempt to replace Franco’s regime with a communist regime is doomed to failure, Diego also knows that Marianne’s dream for them will surely result in his death. Yet he remains committed to both of them. The film ends with him going to Spain both as a concession to out-of-touch party leaders in order to save his endangered friend and as a concession to Marianne’s desire to start a new life with him. His doom is made all the more certain by the police’s discovery of Nadine’s real father’s real passport. No matter what course of action he takes, the only issue for Diego, as for communism, is death. As indeed, 25 years later, History would confirm.

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