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Throughout his long career, Alain Resnais, the enormously influential French filmmaker who died this year, evinced the qualities and concerns that marked his earliest work. Often the result of close collaboration with writers noted for their enigmatic voices and recursive, self-h(a)unted sensibilities — Marguerite Duras, for example, and Alain-Robbe Grillet — these foundational films (eg. HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959), MURIEL, OR THE TIME OF RETURN(1963), and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)) managed the still-breathtaking feat of detaching their constitutive elements from the usual narrative framework, such that stories not only become non-linear, but their visual and audio components comment upon one another, a la Chris Marker, rather than speaking in one voice. The result is a richly arresting, cerebral but prismatic style, one that lends itself perfectly to Resnais’ interest in the half-life of various passions, whether political revolutions, the traumas of war, or memories of love.

LA GUERRE EST FINIE (THE WAR IS OVER), scripted by Spanish novelist and communist, Jorge Semprun, distills and exemplifies Resnais’ approach to cinema, and it does so while telling a gripping tale of political idealism in mortal combat with the pestering creep of reality, and failure. It is screening tonight as part of a ten-day tribute to the late great director at the Harvard Film Archive.

Identity theft gets a bad rap these days. If you received a call from the police asking you to vouch for someone who claimed to be, say, your father, and when they put you on the phone with the guy he proved an obvious pretender, how would you handle it? Sounds sketchy, right? But if you lived in the world of Alain Resnais’ THE WAR IS OVER, you would run the risk of ratting out Yves Montand, or at least Diego, the anti-fascist, “professional revolutionary” Spaniard he portrays here.

Among those who harbored dreams of overthrowing the Franco regime during the long decades following its Hitler-aided triumph over republicans and socialists, the principle of “don’t snitch” extended deep into the most personal territory, rendering names and histories flexible in order to maximize an agent’s lifespan and utility. Diego, who has been crossing and recrossing the border between Spain and France for thirty years — carrying messages, plotting actions, debating theory and praxis ad nauseam — lives just such a palimpsest of a life, writing over himself so many times that he may have lost sight of the original.

Yves Montand may seem absurdly unbelievable as anything other than a Frenchman, but it is that very fact, don’t you think, that makes him the ideal man for the Spanish underground to station in Paris. Montand’s Diego is plainly exhausted and disillusioned by his movement’s prospects — “it’s forever stirring but it never changes,” he complains of Spain’s political landscape — and he decries the romantic myth of the revolutionary to which arm-chair radicals cling. But then, this is Yves Montand, from whom romantic myths can’t possibly be entirely pried, and his Diego reinforces a very 1960s stereotype of the suave, sexy spy — he just does it while on the verge of tears and looking like he could sleep for a million years.

For Diego, the war may finally be over, thirty years after it ended for most everyone else. The time may have come for him to go home, to resume his “real” identity and start a family. On the other hand, “patience and irony are the chief virtues of a bolshevik” — and identity may be more binding than the proliferation of disguises suggests.

This is one of Alain Resnais’ most beautifully constructed works of the 1960s, built on long stretches of lyrical voiceovers which, while less poetically disjointed than Duras’ dialogue in HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, offer a similar emotional grounding for the virtuosic, elliptical montages they accompany. THE WAR IS OVER is a melancholy film, a film that takes hopelessness seriously; but as a work of art it is marvelously spirited, lively, and engaged — Resnais’ direction reliably finds fresh ways to make meaning by setting images and sounds in sequence.

THE WAR IS OVER (1966) // 6/22 // 6PM
121 minutes
$9 General admission

Carpenter Center
24 Quincy St
Cambridge, MA

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