‘Gauguin’ and ‘Guernica’: Alain Resnais Comes Unstuck

Gauguin Guernica - Vague Visages

Even amongst the collection of vagabonds and auteurs that roughly makeup that scene we call French New Wave, the corpus of Alain Resnais remains some of the most opaque. A true modernist, his formal abstraction gave cinema some of the key tools in grappling with the trauma of the second World War. In two short films, Paul Gauguin (1950) and Guernica (1951) — recently restored by CNC and streaming on Ovid — Resnais grips with these tools by telling stories of two major European artists, and grapples with the past by bringing it to life. Like the nameless characters of Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, the unidentifiable subjects of Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso blur into daguerreotypes, as though they will disintegrate if the light shines on them.

Gauguin, who famously had three wives and infected them with syphilis before dying of the condition himself, is valourised by Resnais to dreamlike effect. A card of text announces that “At the time Gauguin was only known to a privileged few. Today he is considered to be one of the greatest French painters of all time,” while another slide tells of a bank teller who gives up on the day-to-day drudgery, devoting himself to painting for 20 years until he dies in poverty. Indeed, the loss of Gauguin’s job is what drove him to paint every day (parodied exquisitely in the 1961 Tony Hancock vehicle The Rebel), and Resnais uses it as a rebirth, jumping from the darkness of a title card to a rush of paint. 

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Gauguin Documentary

Opening with a close up of a hand, the camera shakes slightly before a series of wipes slide the viewer across a number of paintings. Free association between a child, a naked woman and a farm recalls the opening of Muriel or The Time of Return (1963), in which Resnais characterises Delphine Seyrig’s antiques dealer by rapidly cutting around the things that she owns. Just as Gauguin reveals Resnais, Resnais uses his film to illuminate the formalism of Gauguin, too. When he zooms out of a family tableau to reveal the food and tablecloth, he draws different emphasis to Gaugain’s mastery of staging by adding movement to stillness. It has the effect of a candle flickering on a cave wall, making the figures dance. With stern music by Darius Milhaud, Rififi star Jean Servais reads a text by Gaugain: “I want to be happy as only a free man can be,” he states, as a self-portrait, half in shade, gives a cursive look to something out of frame. 

Resnais finds the narrative in the blotches. When he starts crossfading pieces, you feel the holistic nature of the work. “I have known extreme poverty,” he narrates while zooming out of a small silhouette to reveal a vast, snowy Brittany landscape. It’s a swoonsome image. I find the dribbling backgrounds and simple touches of Gauguin’s work very touching, even if his later Polynesian efforts are unforgivably crass. When Resnais takes the audience there, via a few paintings of the high seas, he himself succumbs to this othering, with heavy drums on the soundtrack and oriental inflected pipes. Here, the film falls into its own “rain dance” pattern, layering faces, masks and totems with increasing fervour like some kind of tribal dance.

Gauguin Documentary

Resnais leaves an emotional grace note for the ending. As Gauguin declines to syphilis, his narration reaches back to Brittany, and Resnais cuts back to earlier paintings as he describes “the brush stopping” of Gaugain’s death. The filmmaker’s most radical formal move is to continue zooming out past the canvas to reveal a whole picture frame on a wall. 

Beginning around Gauguin’s death, Guernica, co-directed by Robert Hessens, has no such room for sentimentality. Like the prior film, it uses its subject’s artwork (Picasso, 1902-1949) to make up the film’s entire visual range of view. It is the more adventurous film, with multiple voice over narrations from María Casares and Jacques Pruvost filling viewers in on the horrors of the 1937 bombing of Guernica. They reminisce, not unlike Hiroshima Mon Amour, and deliver with the same affectless style as Emmanuelle Riva. The key voice, of course, is Picasso. Resnais and Hessens attempt to explore his memory by using his baroque Rose Period paintings, which layer over a sketch of the shelled out town. In this gesture, the directors draw a line between Picasso’s artistic turns as a shift in recollection, and pull forth the bleak alienation of “Seated Harlequin” (1905) as a kind of response to the devastation of Adolf Hitler’s planes. 

 Influenced by Gauguin, Picasso used techniques of African mask and pottery which are evident in Guernica. “Friendly faces faced with nothing” intones the narration, getting at the blankness behind many of Picasso’s visages. To see the colour drained out from these artworks highlights the shadows and shade emphasises the sorrow of war. Using elements of Spanish guitar and then circus-like whistles, one painting dissolves under another. “Chaos reigns” the narration speaks, when the bombs start to fall. Shining a torch on the canvas, Resnais and Hessens make distinct characters look like cutouts that move like shadow puppets. Flashing back, again and again, to a woman’s eyes that seem to watch the carnage as an onlooker, the directors find a number of mouths agape, tongues pointed out like daggers, and cut across them as a recurrent image. 

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Guernica Documentary

Like Gauguin’s leap out of the frame, the climax of Guernica includes the camera entering the physical realm to shoot some ceramic work. Resnais cannot help but film statues to look like ash, like artifacts from the scene of war. During production, perhaps he got the idea to shoot Hiroshima Mon Amour as he did. If Gauguin and Guernica shine a light on their respective subjects, they also present a key part of Resnais’ own development as an artist. It is exciting to have these formative works readily available and given the same consideration as the filmmaker’s other key films.

Gauguin and Guernica are currently available to stream at OVID.tv.

Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.

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