At the same time, the films subvert their maker's authority, as well as anyone else's, and usually do so with a sense of humor. Debates about whether humans control their destinies often turn into images of animals like cats and mice, playing upon how rational creatures are also creatures of instinct. In Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980), the real-life scientist Henri Laborit demonstrates how the behavior of mice predicts our own while scripted scenes unfold of three "case studies" growing up in French society. Laughter comes out of moments in which the people behave like their creature counterparts, as well as out of ones in which they act against expectations.

Resnais's later films employ several of the same actors repeatedly while tracing variations in human behavior. In some cases (such as his four films based on Ayckbourn plays, and his mounting of the 1925 operetta Not on the Lips [2003]), the films are outright adaptations of theater pieces, but even if not, they present people within overtly artificial, theatrical space whose openness calls attention to what cannot be seen.

André Dussollier plays a man struggling to express his growing feelings for a woman played by Azéma during the long, dialogue-driven nighttime scenes of Mélo (1986), while Azéma's character tries to face her burgeoning love for Dussollier's amid the glowing hues of Wild Grass (2009). In Love Unto Death (1984), Azéma plays an earthbound woman who first attempts to resurrect her deceased love (Pierre Arditi) and then commits to following him into the underworld; in You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet! (2012), Azéma and Arditi essentially reverse their parts within a staging of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. They appear as one of several pairs of younger and older actors who assume the roles, delicately suggesting that the thought of love need not age.

Alain Resnais in Wild Grass
Alain Resnais in Wild Grass


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Resnais's chief points of reference included show tunes, comic books, and old movies, with which he felt in more direct contact than he did with being an innovator. Shortly after the premiere of Last Year at Marienbad, an interviewer asked Resnais whether he believed that the cinema was dead, alive, or about to be born, to which he replied, "It flows on like a river."

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