Tracing a Lineage: Alain Resnais’s Painting Films and the Animated Aesthetic
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Re-thinking the linkages between Alain Resnais and the graphic image, this article seeks to establish aesthetic and conceptual connections between Resnais’s early painting films and his later filmography through the lens of animation theory. Beginning with an examination of the post-war European art film, the article moves towards notions of figuration in Resnais’s Van Gogh (1948) and Guernica (1950) in order to un-earth latent thematic connections between those works and his later touchstones of European modernism; particularly in relation to notions of subjectivity and historiography. By excavating these graphic connections, this article hopes to better contextualize early Resnais, and forge aesthetic connections that are largely absent in English-language treatments of the director’s early filmography.
To understand the work of Alain Resnais it is vital to consider the concept of animation. By this I do not necessarily mean animated cinema, but rather the broadest sense of the verb animate: to imbue with life. Resnais’s cinema is obsessed with the way in which film is able to animate a seemingly inanimate object or surface. Recall the opening narration of My American Uncle (1980). Over a montage of various pond flora, the narrator declares:
Plants can stay alive without moving around. They take their nourishment directly from the soil. And thanks to the sun’s energy, they transform this inanimate matter into their own living matter.
What follows this sequence is a montage of close-ups of various static household objects: a spoon, a doorknob, an inkwell, a cycle chain, scissors, a sewing machine (fig.1). Not only do these objects all imply motion (scissors cutting, doorknobs turned etc.), but they are themselves animated by the gaze of the film camera. There is an irreducible link between the film camera and motion: cinema is after all the art of the moving image. As film philosopher John Seel notes: “just as silence in a piece of music represents an element of its sound, stasis in a film is a mode of image movement.” Cinema does not allow for stasis, even in its capturing of stillness. In this way, these two seemingly unrelated sequences are linked by a concern with an external animating force that transforms the “inanimate matter” of an environment “into their own living matter.”
Resnais’s preoccupation with the animating force of the film camera has been observed by a number of scholars. Yet it is only recently that this preoccupation has been linked to Resnais’s specific affection towards, and affiliation with, animated cinema. In particular Karen Beckman’s article “Animating the Cinéfils” does important work in arguing that recent animated remakes of Last Year at Marienbad (1961) suggest a greater lineage between Resnais’s work and the graphic image (here meant in its literal sense). Beckman rightly points out that many scholars have touched upon the latent presence of animation in Resnais’s filmography but have afforded the notion only a cursory glance. Particularly pertinent Beckman also derides André Bazin’s curt negative taxonomy of Resnais’s painting films: “films on paintings are not animated films.”.
Beckman counters that Resnais’s Guernica (1950), the film that Bazin is writing about when he makes this assertive extrapolation, could well be considered an animated film. Her counterargument, addressed both to Bazin and to Dudley Andrews (who recapitulates and affirms Bazin’s claim in a retrospective piece), proposes that the “superimpositions and dissolves...do seem to animate specific drawings throughout the film, magically revealing aspects of them in sequence.” Beckman’s argument is convincing, but pivots quickly towards a discussion, in familiar terms, of the “animating force of close-ups, zooms, and camera movements” that enliven the statuary of Marienbad. I contend that Beckman, like many English-language scholarship on Resnais, alights on the director’s painting films far too briefly. Yes, in its focus on the animation of the graphic line through photographic technology, Guernica clearly inherits the technical and visual imperatives of more conventional cel-animation. Such a technical analogy conforms to Hannah Franks’s recent materialist re-definition of animated films as “a photographic record of graphic images”, a definition which places all painting films within the category of animated cinema. But I argue that the connection between Resnais’s painting films and animation aesthetics is more profound and consequential than Beckman’s brief reading allows. I suggest that in order to fully understand Resnais’s preoccupation with animation in both the material and conceptual sense, and the way that this concern reverberates throughout his filmography, we must return to his Van Gogh (1948) and later Guernica and examine them through both a theoretical and historical lens.
In order to excavate the latent connections between these films and the animated image, I will employ an animation studies perspective. For Tom Gunning, the wonder of animation lies in the “pivot from stillness to motion” that produces the “instant...an incremental of time”. This emphasis on the animation’s temporal affect is central to writings on animated ontologies and can be traced back to the writings of Sergei Eisenstein, whose collected essays on Disney Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s are considered to be the “ur-text of animation studies.” In these essays, Eisenstein proposes that the affective resonances of the animated image are provoked by a dialectical tension between the representational prerogative of animation’s graphic contours (fully formed and operational character-objects) and the generative, yet potentially disfiguring motion that is inevitably provoked by the process of the contour’s capture and projection on film. For Eisenstein, the proof of this tension lies in the fact that the bodies of animated characters are in a near constant state of distension or disintegration. Consider the stretchy, misbehaving limbs of Mickey Mouse in early Disney Cartoons or the Max Fleischer’s toons, with their spasmodic bodily exclamations and sweaty excretions of ink. Corporeal integrity is inevitably undone by the innate kineticism of the film-image. Eisenstein proposes that this tension creates a realm of unfettered, boundless possibility in which “heartless geometrizing and metaphysics” are substituted by a morphological “plasmaticness”. The graphic line of animation thus exists in a state between the rigidity of signification and absolute figurability or, as Eisenstein conceives of it: animation “captures the process between primal protoplasm and formed man.”While Eisenstein was writing on a specific type of animation (Disney cartoons), I contend that his complex aesthetic of graphic figuration and its enfolded dissolution is a useful framework for the analysis of Resnais’s painting films Van Gogh and Guernica
However, in order to strengthen this analysis, we must contextualize both films within the post-war art-documentary boom in which they were made. Art-film scholar Steve Jacobs considers Europe in the post-war period to be host to the “golden age of art documentary”. He posits that this “golden age” was precipitated by an international mission to efface the “barbarism and obscurantism of Nazism” through cultural pedagogy, and suggests that film was tasked with the perpetuation of a “humanist ideal of cultural emancipation” because of its mass popularity and circulation. This era is marked by the founding of UNESCO in 1945, and indeed both UNESCO and FIAF played crucial roles in the securing of funding for the distribution of documentaries on art. In France, this funding prerogative was coupled with the creation of “production quotas and government subsidies” for the production of short films. This confluence of institutional change and post-war cultural anxiety resulted in the flourishing of the short-form European art documentary. Jacobs marks out Luciano Emmer, Henri Storck, and (later) Resnais himself as the triumvirate of great post-war art-documentarians. He argues that the filmmakers’ transposition of a “cinematic logic” of spatial delineation and character movement to the presentation of paintings on-screen resulted in a “more analytical approach” to art-history than the pre-war art documentary. This “analytical approach” consisted largely of deploying continuity editing techniques to either narrativize the painting, or excavate and emulate specific formal and stylistic tendencies within the works of certain painters (often both in the same film).
In their use of cinematographic and editing techniques to imbue graphic figures with movement, and their restriction of visual field entirely to the surface of the paintings under consideration, there is a visual linkage between these films and animation cinema (despite Bazin’s suggestion to the contrary). Indeed, connections between this “analytical approach” and animated cinema exist at the level of production. During the production of Emmer’s The Legend of St. Ursula (1948), Jacobs notes “dozens of still photographs of an artwork were filmed with an old 1913 Pathé camera on an animation stand in a way similar to the production process of an animation film”. However, I believe that these painting films betray a more complex conceptual relationship with animation, one that goes beyond visual analogy and returns us to the realm of Eisensteinian thought. By looking closely at the way in which Resnais’s painting films, made after the most significant work of Emmer and Storck, both inherit and develop this particular relationship, we can mark out nascent aesthetic concerns that are specific to Resnais. This will allow us to put these early films in conversation with his later documentaries and modernist feature films. In doing so, we can achieve a more exact contextualization of Resnais’s painting films, and read them more closely than than much of the English language scholarship on the director.
Van Gogh: Narrative, Narration, and Subjectivity
Luciano Emmer’s pioneering work Racconto di un Affresco/ Story of a Fresco (1938) is arguably the first film to develop the “analytical approach” that will flourish in post-war Europe. Capturing the influential pre-renaissance fresco cycle of Giotto di Bondone found in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua, the film is most notable, and influential, for its disregard of the “pictorial composition and spatial determination” of Giotto’s frescoes. The film radically denatures the spatial composition of the paintings in order to render the narration of the Passion in distinctly cinematic terms. Two moments that bookend the film evoke the visual analogy that Beckman makes in regard to Guernica: the opening sequence that depicts Joseph ‘startled’ by a group of angels announcing the impending birth of Christ, and the scene of Christ’s crucifixion in which Emmer captures Giotto’s angels wracked by mourning. In both sequences, an ingenious use of rapid lap dissolves create the illusion of character movement, in a way visually analogous to the flickering motion of cel-animation. Joseph appears to open his eyes in astonishment. The angels physically crumble under the weight of overwhelming grief (such an illusion was presumably achieved by manipulating the orientation of the image through mattes, then dissolving in images from later in the fresco cycle.)
While these moments of illusory motion are important, the film’s ingenuity (and subsequent influence) lies in the application of continuity editing in order to delineate the spatial parameters of the paintings, and suggest the potential for character movement within this (cinematically) mapped space. Entire frescoes are rarely shown for long. Instead, long shots of frescoes in toto cut to conversational medium shots, and then expressive close-ups; a progression of spatial emphasis clearly inherited from the conventions of live-action cinema. Such a progression delineates the parameters, and limits, of the diegetic space. Further, Emmer employs a “matrix of eye-line matches that filter the narrative weight of the tragedy through the perspective of the subjects who are witnessing or participating”. The horror of King Herod’s infanticidal dictum is suggested through several threatening eyeline-matches from his guards to the panicking crowds (fig.2.1 & 2.2); the imminent tragedy’ of Jesus’s capture is rendered through furtive cuts made between expressions of individual disciples. Rather than through clever dissolves or matte work, these figures are made animate because their gaze provokes a response from the film itself. Their meaningful looks put into motion the call-response dyad of the eye-line match. Emmer’s ingenuity lies in his evocation of vitality through editing schemas rather than elaborate camera trickery. While the figures in these scenes are not made to mimic movement in the literal sense, they are indeed animated. They “pivot from stillness to motion”, come to life, through the kinetic potential of the filmic gesture.
In its approach to the delineation of space and motion within the frame of a painting, Resnais’s Van Gogh, his first commercial work, is clearly indebted to Emmer’s art films. Indeed, Resnais was explicitly asked by the film’s writer, Gaston Diehl, to make Van Gogh in the style of Emmer’s work. The Italian director’s influence is felt right from the beginning of Resnais’s film, in which a voiceover describes Van Gogh’s childhood in rural Neunen while the film cuts between several of Van Gogh’s early genre paintings of the town. These paintings are shown in their entirety, and in their panoramic clarity they clearly act as proxies of the establishing shot. Such a stylistic borrowing is felt most keenly in a famous moment early in the film in which clever editing animates one of Van Gogh’s elderly peasant figures. The film cuts from the Neunen landscapes to one of Van Gogh’s most famous pastoral genre paintings, The Cottage (1885). The painting is of a lone ramshackle cottage surrounded by a spare and uninviting autumnal landscape. An elderly villager stands on the threshold of the home. The film then cuts in to a ‘medium shot’ that makes central the figure of the lone woman. A cut then, to a ‘close-up’ of the face of an elderly woman in another one of Van Gogh’s peasant portraits. The use of continuity editing here suggests that this woman is the same lone figure hovering at the entrance, despite our knowledge that this must be a different painting. A cut back to The Cottage, but this time a “close-up” of the empty doorframe that stands on the opposite side of the cottage to the occupied threshold. The woman, according to the sequence, has just entered her home. Then a cut to several shots of Van Gogh’s notable pastoral interiors, Weaver Near an Open Window (1884) and The Potato-Eaters (1885) (Fig. 3.1-.3.4). Through an ingenious understanding of framing and space, Resnais deploys and advances Emmer’s use of cinematic grammar to imply not only character animation, but movement through z-axis space.
Yet while it is easy to spot the influence of Emmer’s approach to animation in Van Gogh, it is in the divergence from Emmer’s dynamic application of continuity editing and spatial synthesis that we find a distinct authorial signature. The final third of the film uses a number of the artist’s late Impressionist work to chart his release from institutionalisation in St. Remy and eventual total mental collapse. Resnais fractures the spatial coherence that characterises the previous section, substituting delicate camera movement in (mostly) medium shot for rapid pans that whip frantically between the artist’s late impressionist masterpieces. The paintings’ compositional grouping and distinct planes of action are obscured in favour of disfiguring close-ups that emphasize the force of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, rather than the objects that they constitute. Consider Resnais’s treatment of Olive Trees with Yellow Sun and Sky (1889); a work depicting the view from Van Gogh’s asylum at Saint-Remy (fig.4). An extreme close-up of the work de-emphasizes the sun as a figured aesthetic object, instead focusing on the fervent stippling and spiraling dashes of paint. Resnais scholar John Rhym notes that Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, as captured on film “characterize the distinctiveness of the depicted world, threaten its coherence, and gesture toward the possibility of emergent figures”. The visual “coherence” of the paintings, prized in Emmer’s spatially precise editing style, is dissolved by Resnais as the obtrusive gaze of the camera emphasizes the “emergent figure” over the fully formed object. Resnais molds film style to match the Impressionist aesthetic; an aesthetic that emphasizes the process of figuration over unambiguous, representative forms. In this way, Resnais illuminates and emphasizes a tension that is found both within Van Gogh’s work and, according to Eisenstein, within the graphic contour as it is captured on-screen.
As Eisenstein suggests, within the animated world of the filmed-graphic, the graphic contour behaves “like a primal protoplasm” because it can only briefly assume definite form before it is subsumed by animation’s immanent kinetic force. The graphic figure in animation is inevitably disfigured by the elemental, vibrational possibility of “assuming any form”. In Van Gogh, Resnais harnesses the aesthetic of animation, the joyous, ecstatic fungibility that characterises Eisenstein’s graphic contour, to visualize Van Gogh’s loosening mental grip on the world. In another striking moment, the film cuts from a shot revealing the whole of his Les Oliviers 2 (1899) to a close-up of a single crooked olive tree. The camera tilts up slowly, capturing the entire length of the trunk (Fig.5). The film then abruptly cuts to the same shot, only sped up. The movement is repeated before there is another cut to the same shot sped up even faster. The film here dynamically tracks the dissolution of the figure of the tree; the stability of the contour is lost in the “wake of absolute movement”. The transformation of the graphic contour from a rendered figure to an image of movement-in-itself is given further emphasis by the melancholy narration, that turns to the voice of Van Gogh and cries: “the world turns so fast, how can I catch it”. The graphic image is here deployed in a way that “animates our perception independently from our recognition of the figure”. The unchained movement of the animated graphic image reflects the disintegration of the mind itself, the unchaining of thought from meaning.
A double dissolution then, as Van Gogh’s mental breakdown is tied to the film’s emphasis on the diaphanous nature of the filmed graphic image. Unlike Emmer’s strictly narrative focus, Resnais uses the aesthetic of animation to portray a distinct subjectivity. Indeed, Resnais himself stated that his aim with Van Gogh was to see if “it was possible to substitute for the observer the interior world of an artist for the world that photography revealed”. Such a singular use of the film image to suggest mental deterioration reminds one of the praise often bestowed upon Resnais; praise garnered through his eschewing of typical filmic syntax deployed to portray mental interiority. Film-philosophy scholar Hunter Vaughan notes that Resnais’s cinema disregards “the connotative structure through which human subjectivity is simulated”. It is in Van Gogh that the viewer first encounters Resnais’s transgression of typical cinematic expressions of subjectivity, as he upends the spatial and narrative continuity of the post-war art documentary, as constructed by Emmer, in order to animate the “interior world” of Van Gogh. Resnais’s film is thus disfiguring in both a visual and medial sense. He harnesses the animation dialectic of figuration and dissolution in order to disfigure the filmed object, which in turn disturbs the broader semantics of an established cinematic dialect.
The deployment of animation’s visual dialectic of figuration and dissolution to explore the subjective reverberates throughout Resnais’s filmography. His first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) charts a love affair between Japanese architect Him and French actress Her in post-war Hiroshima. The film begins with a close-up image of interlaced limbs encrusted in a kind of dust or sand, like victims of a disaster; a gentle cross dissolve reveals an almost identical image, this time the limbs sparkle, lathered with a coruscating substance. A final cross dissolve begins a series of languid shots of bare limbs, glistening from carnal perspiration. The lighting, camera position, and laminating substances rob these limbs of definitive shape. The frame becomes a writhing, amorphous mass of moving shapes, identifiable as corporeal but otherwise visually opaque. The screen is animated not by the limbs themselves, but by the movement of light and shadow, the shifting pools of dust and oil. Figuration is lost, once again, in the “wake of absolute movement” (fig. 6). The disintegration of the figure here connects the destruction of the war, and Hiroshima itself, to the corporeal co-mingling achieved in the throes of carnal passion. The image anticipates the ruined bodies and ruined buildings of Hiroshima, indeterminate shapes that frame the protagonists’ traversal of the city. Crucially, though, it is also emblematic of a key tension within the film, as the protagonists’ erotic encounters and burgeoning romance are consistently thwarted by their inability to communicate to each other their memories of wartime experience. Gilles Deleuze proposes that in Hiroshima, memory is “made for two”, as the film coagulates mutual traumas into a single, empathetic “world”. But the key tension of Resnais’s film is generated by the exact opposite of empathy, as the pair are each unable to give linguistic shape, definite form, to their fractured, oblique memories of war. This insurmountable shapelessness, the inexpressible solipsism of traumatic memory, is reflected in the figural indeterminacy of the prescient opening images. And while the image itself is not of the graphic, as in Van Gogh, we see a sustained interest in the aesthetic promise of Eisenstein’s “plasmatic” contour in realizing the cinematic expression of subjectivity.
What is interesting about Resnais’s use of the animated aesthetic after Hiroshima is that it not used to portray or suggest a subjective point of view within the diegesis of the film itself. In fact, Resnais uses the animated aesthetic to create a reflexive cinematic imaginary, in which his characters’ phenomenological experience of memory, imagination, and time are made subordinate to the subjective force of the narrational act itself. This distinctly modernist shift is played out most prominently in his Last Year in Marienbad.
Beckman rightly prioritizes the film in her discussion of Resnais and animation. She links the ambiguous spatial dimensions and temporal simultaneities of the film to the visual layout of “comic-strip and animation”. Yet there is a more complex, and important, conceptual linkage between Marienbad and the animated image. At the film’s beginning, after several long tracking shots of the baroque cornices that border the hotel’s ceilings, the camera moves to a theater room in which a seemingly transfixed audience watch an equally frozen pair of actors. There is dialogue emanating from somewhere, but the actors’ lips don’t move. The immobility of the audience makes sense, they are enraptured by a performance. But then after the play ends and the crowd applauds and then converses, they suddenly all freeze. Conversation stops abruptly. They are frozen in place. We are momentarily unsure whether it is a freeze-frame or whether the characters are simply frozen to the spot. The camera cuts from one frozen conversation to another, before they all begin to converse again. This happens several times both within the scene and throughout the course of the film (Fig.7). As the film explores the labyrinthine atriums and antechambers of the hotel, it finds guests that behave “like statues”, totally immobile, before suddenly, and without warning, coming alive with movement and conversation. I believe these moments are key to unlocking the temporal consciousness of the film itself. Resnais here deploys an aesthetic of animation in the sense that he revels in the “emergence of motion out of stillness” that Gunning believes is at the heart of animation cinema’s affective and temporal resonances. Gunning suggests that this pivot produces the “production of the instant...a brief incremental of time”. These moments in which the audience is aware of the “instant” seems at odds with the narrative of the film itself, which seems to meld past and present, reality and imagination, waking consciousness and dream-states. Where and how does the ‘instant’ fit into this temporal and subjective heterogeneity?
András Bálint Kovács writes that the inscrutability of the film’s spatial and temporal layering is somewhat of a bluff. He notes that the film in fact “cancels out time and contracts everything onto a single narrative surface...the only thing that exists in the dimension of time in the story is the narration itself”. He contends that there is no definite temporal or narrative structure that a conscientious viewer could unpack, and this is in fact the point. In creating an inscrutable and irresolute spatial and temporal structure, the film posits that the only time that the viewer can understand is the present time of the narration itself. The film thus only “takes place in the present and memories are created in the present by a narrative that makes some fictious events appear as if taking place in the past”. Time is flattened by the narrational act; there is only the present of telling. If we follow Kovac’s reflexive interpretation of the film, then these sudden, seemingly arbitrary pivots from stillness to motion make sense. They reveal in fact that the “instant” present of the narrational act is where the film takes place.
Gilles Deleuze suggests that the “immobilizations petrifications and repetitions” of Resnais’s film displays “the dissolution of the action image”. Yet, it is the immanence of movement within these moments of “immobilizations” that suggests the ever-present potentiality of action. It is this kinetic tension, one inherited from the graphic contour, that grounds the film in a perpetual present. Resnais’s deployment of an animated aesthetic here is unlike in Van Gogh and Hiroshima, where figural indeterminacy dismantled the “connotative codes” of subjectivity to present new potentialities and problems with the portrayal and communication of subjective thought. Rather the animated aesthetic works in Marienbad to foreground the subjective action of narration itself. Resnais’s later films will anchor subjective expression more firmly to character, never returning to explicit discursive reflexivity of Marienbad. However, deployment of the animated aesthetic to aestheticize and problematize the subjective remains central to his later work.
Guernica: Stylistic Transposition and Re-presenting History
Guernica resembles Resnais’s previous painting films, Van Gogh and Gauguin (1950) in that it takes its images almost entirely from the oeuvre of a particular artist, in this case Pablo Picasso. Yet unlike his previous shorts, Guernica is uninterested in artist biography. As Emma Wilson notes, “In Guernica, Resnais extends his work outwards to encompass not only personal tragedy but a broad traumatic history.” The film is more concerned with the filmic representation of a historical atrocity: the bombing of civilians at Guernica during the latter days of the Spanish Civil War. According to Wilson, it puts Picasso’s “vision of the world” in the service of an essayistic reflection on filmic historiography in the face of an unspeakable historical trauma. The film harnesses the “artist’s vision of the world” to “animate and respond to an event of enormity and horror”. The predominance of the event, rather than its graphic realization in Picasso’s iconic artwork, is announced at the film’s beginning, which opens not on one of Picasso’s works, but on a photograph of the ruined city.
In its concern with harnessing a particular “vision of the world”, rather than biographical narrativization and mental interiority (although the film does treat the events of the day in roughly chronological order), Guernica borrows a concern with stylistic emulation pioneered by Belgian contemporary Henri Storck. Jacobs believes Storck brought Emmer’s inter-medial hybridity to maturation by “putting film at the disposal of an analysis of both the content and form of an artwork”. Storck’s painting-films de-emphasise the narrative pre-occupation of Emmer’s work in favor of evoking a certain mood or tone; it is the world of the artist that is emphasized rather than any stories their work may tell. As Raymond Durgant notes: “the picture becomes a whole world, a spiritual geography”. This is revealed most forcefully in Le Monde de Paul Delvaux (1946), a work that once again uses only the paintings from a particular artist. Here though, the film is far more concerned with tone than narrative. Each scene begins with a close-up on a particular object, before a slow zoom out brings the entire canvas into focus (Fig.8). This concentration on the gradational revelation of the painting through zooms, tentative panning, and re-framing, can be explained by the fact that Delvaux’s work contains a perspectival complexity that is vital to the structure and tone of his painting, and to break the pieces up into constituent parts would be ruinous to their effect.
Yet the eerily slow pans do more than compliment the space of the paintings, they also emphasise an uncanny stillness in Delvaux’s work. Jacobs explains that “while camera movements and editing are usually called in for the animation of static pictures, Storck’s moving camera emphasizes the fixity of Delvaux’s nudes—an issue that is inherent in Delvaux’s paintings that often deal with the juxtaposition between nude and skeleton, eroticism and death, flesh and marble”. The surreal stillness of Delvaux’s work is emphasized by upsetting viewer’s expectations of on-screen graphic figures. The camerawork should work to emphasize the innate animism of the filmed-graphic, as in Emmer’s films, yet the slow zooms and pans deliberately work against this notion. There is a productive tension here between the kinetic potential of the filmed graphic contour, as identified by Eisenstein, and its ultimate frustration at the hands of a defiantly still camera. Jacobs believes this dichotomy reflects Delvaux’s surrealist obsession with the “living and the animate.” This liminal tension is emphasized by a kind of anti-animation; the negation of movement when it is most expected, a dilution of the ecstatic fluidity of the on-screen graphic contour.
The disruption of the conventional treatment of the graphic image is also vital to the visual aesthetic of Guernica. The film begins with paintings from the Picasso’s early figurative periods: The Blue and Rose Periods (1901-1906). The opening photograph cross-dissolves to an image of Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques (1905). The dissolve is followed by a series of shots of early Picasso paintings, images of strangely costumed men and women, thin to the point of emaciation (Fig.9). All express a discrete melancholy. Like Storck’s treatment of Delvaux’s nudes, the painted figures are not endowed with the figural fluidity and kinetic momentum of the conventional on-screen graphic image. Instead they are encased by a series of static medium shots that rarely yield to a close-up. A baleful voiceover colludes with the static frame as it labels the figures as the citizens of Guernica before the bombing: “actors in a perpetual drama...you weren’t expecting death”. This rigidity of signification, unusual in the filmed-graphic, acts as metaphor for the inability of the civilians of Guernica to escape their role as historical victims. They are doomed to be “actors” in an inevitable historical tragedy.
While this anti-animation aesthetic seemingly marks Guernica as stylistically and tonally divergent from Van Gogh, there is an important structural similarity between the two. In the latter half of both films, Resnais uses animation’s dialectic of figuration and dissolution to reflect upon the limits of representative form in the expression of certain modes of being and knowing. In both films, the artists’ post-figurative work is the basis for this aesthetic exploration. In the case of Van Gogh, Resnais uses the artist’s late, Impressionist work to shore up the inadequacies of the representative form in the aesthetic evocation of a fractured subjectivity. The figurative fragility of the Impressionist brushstroke is tied to the mental fragility of Van Gogh himself. In Guernica the latter half of the film moves to Picasso’s cubist period to evoke the horror of the bombing. Here the figural instability and representative ambiguity of the graphic contour is employed to not only symbolize the corporeal disfiguration inflicted upon the bombing victims, but also to reflect upon the limits of representation in the filmic articulation of unspeakable historical trauma.
Guernica’s figurative section ends with a similar visual motif to Van Gogh’s blackout ending. An executioner’s wall gives way to an entirely black screen, save for dimly lit segments of Picasso’s figural work. Images of faces, hands, a mother clutching their child, are barely visible beneath a penumbral void that threatens to overwhelm them. The encroaching shadows, like in Van Gogh, an eerie premonition of death. As the voiceover announces the arrival of the bombers, the languid dissolves and fades that captured Picasso’s figural periods gives way to a series of nightmarish cuts, flashing lights and a panicked acceleration of Guy Bernard’s once-brooding score. Images of panicked faces from Picasso’s earlier work are rapidly intercut with the grotesqueries of his cubist work, including segments of the titular ‘Guernica’ (1937). Analogous to the conclusion of Van Gogh, the formal heterodoxy of Guernica’s final third underlines more forcefully the figural experimentation of its artist’s later work. Indeed, Guernica’s emphasis on disfiguration necessitates far less manipulation of the image than the aggressive tilts of Van Gogh. For Picasso’s cubist work is itself interested in the kinetic, unbridled graphic contour—a contour that expresses the limits of figuration through its ability to disfigure the human (and animal) body. This section includes several close-ups on his masterpiece: The Weeping Woman (1937), in which jagged contours both constitute and disfigure the wailing figure (fig.10). Here the Eisensteinian contour “takes on an independent life, independent of the figure itself”. The angular violence of Picasso’s jagged line is reflective of the cataclysmic violence inflicted upon the city, and Resnais’s broader interest in figuration and its limits.
Resnais’s concern with the limitations of the representational figure in narrating the vicissitudes of traumatic history is most forcefully revealed during the film’s focus on the artwork ‘Guernica’. The work appears sporadically, intercut with other cubist works as well as the grotesque animal imagery of Picasso’s earlier tableaux, most notably the Minotaurarchy (1935). Resnais focuses in particular on Guernica’s injured horse. The wide-eyed animal, screaming in pain due to a stab-wound made by a spear (a typical allusion to bullfighting) has become the piece’s most iconic image (Fig. 11). Eberhard Fisch claims that, in the finished work, Picasso shows the horse “in the state of gradual collapsing”. Resnais, however, never shows the completed image of the animal, instead focusing on a series of Picasso’s sketches for the finished tableau. He begins with a close-up of Picasso’s Sketch 9, in which the horse is shaded in detail, as its head turns upward in a cry of agony. He cuts then to Sketch 13; here the horse is sketched in less detail, with its neck curled downward in pain. He cuts again to Sketch 12 in which the form of the horse is even less distinct, sketched in even more abstract terms, this time its body prostrate from the wound (fig.12.1-12.3). In deploying increasingly less-detailed sketches, Resnais turns the animated aesthetic on its head. No longer signifying the boundless potential of the graphic contour, the figural indeterminacy in this sequence presents the disintegration of the figure as something mournful. It is not the possibility of movement that is registered, rather the tragic inevitability of figural depletion. This animated depletion explicitly evokes the corporeal disintegration of the victims of the Guernica bombings, but it also points to Resnais’s concern with “history as a process of representation”. (my emphasis). By using the sketches to evoke a representative atrophy, Resnais suggests that the aestheticization of traumatic history resists the ease of iconic signification. The animated figure is here deployed to explore the limitations of representative form in giving shape (in a literal and metaphoric sense) to historical trauma.
The use of animation’s dialectic of figuration and dissolution to reflect upon the ambiguities and inevitable aporias of filmic historiography in the face of unspeakable trauma can be traced through Resnais’s later work, in particular his Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1956), and later feature film Muriel (1963). One of the most famous images in the former film is the Muselman; Giorgio Agamben’s term for the categorically impossible Holocaust victim that exists on the threshold between life and death. Resnais’s choice of archival footage in Night and Fog gives emphasis to images of these seemingly still bodies. The viewer presumes that these bodies are corpses before they suddenly move, as if re-animated from without. The full horror of this “category disturbance” preoccupies the film as Resnais returns again and again to the “shudder of indeterminacy” that accompanies the sudden, pained movement of one we thought dead. The focus on this figure is revealing. Emma Wilson suggests that the emphasis on the Muselman reveals Resnais’s interest in the “impossibility of representation” in the wake of a traumatic historical event. Representation is impossible because these figures are indefinable, they cannot be classified according to our notions of living and dead. In their liminal bodily state, these figures are visually reminiscent of the representational uncertainty and torpor of Guernica’s injured horse sequence. The indeterminacy of form in both films, indeterminacy related to animation in its broadest and most difficult sense, is posited as a tragic consequence of a history so striated by trauma that it resists the ease of comprehensive shape.
Shapelessness, and representational limits are key elements of Resnais’s later feature film Muriel; a work that has been widely discussed, and criticised for its “absent centre”. That is, the film primarily concerns the psychical consequences of a man’s torture (and possibly rape) of a young girl during his military service in Algeria, yet the torture is never shown on-screen and referenced directly only once.
Around this “absent center” is built a remarkably oblique narrative concerning the soldier, Bernard, in his hometown of Boulogne and his failure to readjust to civilian life after his time in Algeria. The film is difficult to follow, full of sub-plots that are picked up and quickly forgotten, unmotivated action, characters that enter and exit the plot at whim, and seemingly irrelevant sequences of mundane city life that have no direct bearing on narrative progression. This unconventional narrative structure is matched by an equally fragmented visual aesthetic in which character actions such as the smoking of a cigar or the eating of a meal are serrated by sudden jump cuts. These cuts eschew the spatial coherence of the match-on-action and turn the characters gestures into a series of stuttering, incoherent movements. This gestural incoherence is in turn accompanied by an asynchronous, almost nauseating soundscape in which “dialogue from one shot is carried over to the next, where it acts as a jarring background to an entirely different image.” The film’s fragmented visual and aural aesthetic has been pored over by critics, with many suggesting that such discursive fragmentation is symbolic of the torture and mutilation suffered by the “absent center” that is Muriel. As Celia Britton notes: “the violence of the visual fragmentation is an echo of the violence of the film’s deepest theme, as though Muriel’s torture, however deeply buried it is beneath the superficial normality and banality of life in Boulogne, nevertheless pervades the whole film”. This calculated incoherence has been both lauded as a nuanced portrayal of a troubled national psyche plagued by post-war, and post-colonial, guilt, and dismissed as an film that demotes a serious engagement with histories of colonial and gendered violence in favour of an exercise in abstract formalism.
Whatever the truths of these positions are, the film is consistent with Resnais’s manipulation of animation aesthetics to reflect upon the limits of representation in the evocation of a traumatic history. While this is evident in the curtailed gestures of the film’s characters, this connection is revealed most forcefully in a seemingly innocuous sequence about a third of the way through the film. Françoise, a young woman visiting Bernard’s family, aimlessly roams the streets of Boulogne, and happens upon a reel of postcards outside a local gift shop. Each postcard offers a different landscape view of the town at a different point in its history. The reel resembles a filmstrip, with each postcard as an individual cell. As Françoise pulls the reel down, the film cuts into an extreme close-up of the postcards as they move vertically through the frame. Because of the way that the reel moves, and its visual similarity to a filmstrip, the view expects these postcards to simulate fluid and coherent movement within the frame-cum-viewfinder. The viewer expects animation. This expectation is frustrated as the frame presents a flurry of discontinuous images that match neither in color nor in composition. These images of different moments in time never coalesce into a continuous illusion of movement; they never become animation. They gesture towards cinema’s kinetic endowment of form and movement but remain, like the town of Boulogne itself, in fragments. Like Guernica’s disintegrating horse, this sequence upends our expectations of the animating power of filmic motion. And like Guernica, this strange moment of mise-en-abyme acts as visual metonym for the film’s refusal to give coherent shape to a national and local history that is so marked by the literal and psychical destruction of conflict.
When writing on post-war art documentary, I think often of Resnais’s Song of Styrene (1958). I think of the ironic vaulting of the diminutive red plastic bowl, announced by self-important blue bordering (fig.14).
O temps, suspends ton bol
Ô matieÌre plastique!
Writer Raymond Queneau’s linguistic playfulness turns Lamartine’s poem a bathetic exaltation of a plastic bowl. Plasticity here resides in both language and the substance to which it refers. The film then tracks the bowl from its finished form to the primordial fire from whence it was born; a journey tracked through the fat steel ventricles of the factory. I think of Song of Styrene because it is emblematic of Resnais’s concern with tracking the processual nature of figuration. In its treatment of the figure, it aligns with Gilles Deleuze’s definition of the “cartoon film”:
“if it belongs fully to the cinema, this is because the drawing no longer constitutes a pose or completed figure, but the description of a figure which is always in the process of being formed, or dissolving through the movement of lines and points”.
It is this focus on the figure “in the process of being formed, or dissolving” by which we can most forcefully link Resnais’s work to the animated aesthetic. Such an aesthetic, as I have argued, finds its genesis in his painting-films and the work that proceeded them. Van Gogh develops Emmer’s approach to intermedial space to render the psychological disintegration of the painter through a filmic deformation of the graphic image; the painter’s olive tree is stripped of its branches, of its trunk, becoming an image of movement-in-itself. The animated contour here signifies not an Eisensteinian reverie, but a fatal disentanglement from the “picturable world”. The film’s preoccupation with the fungibility of the graphic contour is linked to a preoccupation with visualizing subjectivity through unprecedented cinematic means. It is his later feature work that will develop this notion, that will defy orthodox means of visualising consciousness, whether within the diegesis itself or in a more self-reflexive interrogation of the narrational act.
Guernica develops this study of the graphic contour and yokes it to an essayistic reflection on the representation of historical trauma. The film inherits and goes beyond Storck’s approach to stylistic emulation to reveal the obverse of Eisenstein’s laudatory exegesis on the animated image. Resnais’s sequentialization of graphic imagery suggests not an illimitable energy but inevitable entropy: anti-animation. Picasso’s figures wilt under the fragile support of the graphic contour; their frangibility reflective of the grim frailty of the human body and the limits of filmic historiography. The complex dialectic of stillness and motion inherent in the animated image, and explored in Guernica, anticipates the arrangement of archival footage in Night and Fog, and the visual fragmentation of Muriel.
Reading Resnais’s painting films through the lens of the animated aesthetic, and in the context of art-documentary’s “golden age” allows us to understand Resnais’s work with greater depth and clarity. His authorial signature interwoven within them, ready to take definite shape.
Thomas Jackson is a PhD candidate currently studying at the University of Iowa. His areas of interest include Eisensteinian approaches to animation theory, new media theory, and video games studies. He is currently working on a dissertation on ‘Desktop Aesthetics’; films and media that foreground the computer desktop as a mode of navigation and expression.
It should further be noted that the subject of torture and the Algerian war was a heavily censored subject in early 1960’s France. Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, a film depicts torture on both sides of the Algerian conflict, was made in 1960 but banned until early 1963