Eiji Okada holds Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour
So many long-forgotten objects

Revealed by his undiscouraged shining

Are returned to us and made precious again

-W.H. Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”

Alain Resnais never took the cinema for granted. He refused to respect the boundaries of its traditional forms; he denied the idea that the medium’s function was self-evident (or, the alternative, that it didn’t have one); and, what now seems most sadly relevant, he resisted the possibility of cinematic memory’s permanence, even as he demanded it. His first feature, Hiroshima mon amour, is a series of gestures poised on the edge of departure, a record of historical atrocity that cries out its testimony even as it erases itself. At the time, Susan Sontag objected to the way Resnais appropriated mass destruction in the service of sensuality; now it seems like Hiroshima’s disappearing act paved the way for large-scale future thinking about the problems of memory.

For those like Sontag who prefer their memorials to be less navel-gazing, there’s Night and Fog, where Resnais’ experiments with non-linearity are in service of an urgent command not to forget. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Last Year at Marienbad, which brought the filmmaker’s abstract side to an extreme of haunted-house gamesmanship. It was these early works that prompted Eric Rohmer to call Resnais “the first modern filmmaker of the sound film.” Filmmakers today are still attempting to pick up and reassemble the shards that these three movies sent flying; like it or not, we live in a post-Marienbad world.

Given the extensive influence and canonization of these three films, it’s tempting to rope them off in the masterpiece gallery and call it a day. There’s a good argument to be made, though, that Resnais’ best, most personal work was still to come. Muriel takes the nouveau roman experiments of Marienbad and re-politicizes them. Providence features a towering performance by John Gielgud and a devastating structural turn that prefigured what David Lynch would do a couple of decades later in Mullholand Dr. Mon oncle d’Amérique observes the lives of its three protagonists from the detached perspective of an evolutionary psychologist, but somehow manages to snatch tenderness from the jaws of clinical disengagement. Wild Grass features what is perhaps the greatest last line of dialogue from any movie since Casablanca. And then there’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, as luminous a farewell to life and art as cinema has ever given us.

Just a couple of weeks ago I finally got a chance to see Resnais’ 1968 feature Je t’aime, je t’aime, which is now touring the repertory circuit in a new restoration. The film’s set-up is the stuff of science fiction: Claude Ridder (Claude Rich), released from the hospital after a suicide attempt, is recruited to take part in a time travel experiment. Loaded into giant brainlike potato alongside a mouse, Claude is told that he will be sent back for only one minute. Instead, he is launched into a free-associative trip through his past, flung from one scene to the next at random. Slowly, patterns begin to emerge: the elliptical scene-fragments revolve around a woman named Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot) who seems to have been the cause of Claude’s suicide attempt. Claude is as helpless as we are, pinned to his seat as a procession of images flickers by in front of him. Resnais straps us in with his protagonist, hurling us into the centrifuge of memory while he watches from outside. This may sound sadistic or cold, but Resnais’ project is anything but. As the story of Claude and Catrine takes heartbreaking form, the object of the filmmaker’s study begins to emerge.

With his tests and patterns, his stimulants and digressions, Resnais is attempting to describe the shape of the human soul, that irreducible bundle of sorrows, ecstasies, and longings that no amount of labwork can corrode. He may not be able to get his hands on it, but he can chip away at reality until there’s not much left except something that looks like love, even though it’s not the love we had always pictured. The great irony of his passing is that no one would be better equipped to trace the contour of what we’ve lost than he would.