Departing somewhat from the delicate, insular modernism of L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) and Muriel ou Le temps d’un retour (1963), Resnais’ fourth feature, La Guerre est finie (The War is Over) is frequently held up by the filmmaker’s critics as a paradigm of sober straightforwardness and the harbinger of an evolving humanism. And in fact, La Guerre est finie’s topical concern with the state of revolutionary politics; the spatial and temporal unity of its central action; and its sympathetic, finely-drawn protagonist, do lend the film an air of elegant simplicity – something almost akin to classicism. But, of course, these terms are relative; even the simplest films in Resnais’ oeuvre conceal dense layers of meaning.
Imbued with world-weary grace by Yves Montand, the film’s protagonist – variously known as Carlos, Domingo, or Diego – is a professional revolutionary in exile. 30 years after the Spanish Civil War, Diego and a small group of comrades continue to chip away at Spain’s fascist government, transporting leaflets across the border in support of a planned general strike.
The film is strongly focalised through Diego who, as the narrative begins, has just crossed back into France. The spectator is frequently presented with Diego’s optical point-of-view, and his mental state is periodically described in a second person voiceover read by screenwriter Jorge Semprún. Even more dramatically, the film departs briefly from the central action of the narrative to present brief representations of Diego’s thoughts.
These subjective sequences, frequently and inaccurately referred to as “flash-forwards” (1), comprise the film’s central formal conceit. They are constructed out of short elliptical flashes and are often prompted by a mental association or a line of dialogue. For instance after Jude (Dominique Rozan), a comrade of Diego’s, remarks that his next contact, Antoine, must be waiting at the train station, there are a series of three brief views of Antoine (Roland Monod). In the first he is waiting near a newsstand, in the second he is at a ticket window, in the third he seems to be standing in the lobby. In each of these brief shots – as in many of the speculative inserts – the camera executes a dramatic push-in motion that seems intended to evoke the way in which mental images spontaneously surface in the mind’s eye. Throughout each silent sequence, the noise of Jude and Diego’s footsteps remain audible, highlighting the permeable boundary between Diego’s internal and external worlds.
Resnais’ figurative use of push-ins and match-cuts in these sequences indicates that they are not to be taken as objective representations of some future reality – in fact, Diego turns out to be mistaken about the precise circumstances of his meeting with Antoine; they serve, instead, as a simulation of the process of cognition. Rather than constructing a non-linear or shuffled temporality, Diego’s speculations serve to ground him and the film solidly in the present moment. Neither memories nor premonitions, Diego’s fleeting conceptions bear no concrete temporal relationship to the events of the film’s larger narrative – they are products of the durationless now (2). Resnais has opined about the difficulty of making a truly contemporary film: “It’s very difficult from the moment you accept making a fiction film with characters who express themselves through everyday language, it’s difficult to make them speak properly in an everyday manner about immediate things” (3). With La Guerre est finie Resnais not only engages with contemporary issues in a thoroughly modern setting, he captures the unique syntax of imminence.
In contrast to the radical uncertainty of the film’s present, Semprún’s voiceover narration assumes a tone of Olympian certainty, addressing Diego from an as yet unimagined future (4). Over and above these two distinct narrative levels, Resnais gathers a loose series of incidents into a symmetrical framework that lends them the weight of destiny. As James Monaco notes, “The film has a circular structure. The first section ‘To Warn Juan’ mirrors the last, ‘To Warn Diego’. The film begins and ends with trips between France and Spain, but despite the circularity, there is an unavoidable sense of progression.” (5) The tension between movement and stasis in the film produces a dreamlike effect, wherein things seem to slip away as soon as one reaches them.
The most elusive phantom is that of a free Spain: “All Spain is any more is a tourist’s dream, or the myth of the civil war. All of which is mixed up with the theater of Lorca […].” (6) Conjured up from the grim apartment complexes of the Parisian suburbs, Spain becomes a screen for the projection of fantasy, absolute and unattainable. Diego’s comrade Juan (Jean-François Rémi) – in danger of being apprehended on an ill-fated trip to Madrid – provides the film with another structuring absence that recalls Muriel’s silent namesake. Juan never appears outside of Diego’s reminiscences and conjectures; over and over, his image surfaces in a series of different contexts, some hopeful, others fraught with anxiety. In the most common scenario, Juan is apprehended from behind by a pair of faceless, trench-coated inspectors. As the film progresses, and Diego’s own freedom becomes increasingly threatened, Juan becomes a symbol of the cost of continuing the present course of revolutionary action.
In the midst of a film structure that emphasises circularity and multiplicity, Diego achieves a kind of elemental singularity. Andrew Sarris finds a heroic naturalism in Montand’s performance that serves to unify the film’s multiple narrative and structural registers: “However fragmented the director’s feelings may be, Montand remains a rock of commitment, and with Montand’s solidity as an actor serving as an anchor in a sea of style, a sea of images can be unified into a mental characterization” (7). While Sarris underestimates the extent to which Resnais creates a space for Diego at the film’s core, his assessment of the grounding centrality of Montand’s performance is perfectly apt. Like a film noir hero who has been stripped by time and modesty of every vestige of vanity or theatrical gesture, Montand’s professional revolutionary embodies the Sartrean epigraph that opens the film: “The militant does not ask that his action justify him: he is, and needs no subsequent justification”.
Near the end of the film, Diego undertakes a final mission across the border in support of the planned general strike. It soon becomes clear that Diego, not Juan, is the target of police suspicion, and that he must be warned before he can cross the border. Receiving instructions from Diego’s remaining comrades, his long-time lover Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) sets out for Spain in the hope of heading him off at the last moment. In the film’s extraordinary last shot – a distended dissolve – a close-up of Diego’s thoughtful, anxious visage is slowly replaced by a shot of Marianne’s hopeful, determined gaze as she runs through the corridors of the train station. For a brief moment, both images occupy the screen together creating an arresting graphic collision that recalls the French Impressionist cinema of the 1920s. This convergence might be understood as symbolising a moment of profound romantic unity, in which Marianne finally takes her place alongside Diego as an equal partner (8). And yet, the elegiac tone of the film’s final section leaves open the possibility that, like their images, Marianne and Diego simply slide past one another without connecting – their imagined future ebbing away at the speed of thought.
- See Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, enlarged ed., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1979, pp. 136-137.
- In his excellent study of the director, James Monaco reprints a portion of a 1977 interview in which the filmmaker declares: “I’ve always refused the word ‘memory’ a propos my work […] I’d use the world ‘imagination’.” Monaco, Alain Resnais, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, p.11.
- Interview with Pierre Utterhoeven, Image et Son no. 148, February 1962, quoted in Monaco, p. 114
- It has been suggested that Semprún based Diego’s experiences loosely on his own. There is a sense throughout the film that the narrator is addressing his younger self.
- Monaco, p. 102.
- Jorge Semprún, La Guerre est finie, trans., Richard Seaver, Grove Press, New York, 1967, p. 93.
- Andrew Sarris, “La Guerre est Finie”, American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, ed. Phillip Lopate, Library of America, New York, 2006, p. 299.
- See Monaco, p. 116.
La Guerre est finie/The War is Over (1966 France/Sweden 116 mins)
Prod Co: Europa Film/Sofracima Prod: Anatole Dauman, Gisèle Rebillon, Catherine Winter Dir: Alain Resnais Scr: Jorge Semprún Phot: Sacha Vierny Ed: Eric Pluet Prod Des: Jacques Saulnier Mus: Giovanni Fusco
Cast: Yves Montand, Ingrid Thulin, Geneviève Bujold, Jean Dasté, Dominique Rozan, Michel Piccoli