It is a strange but much noted fact that in the cinema there is rarely any simple correlation between a director’s output and his reputation. John Ford had made some 50 films, mostly two-reelers, before ever making a name for himself: Roger Corman has made over 40 in ten years, and it is still too early to decide whether his present reputation is anything more than a transitory fad. At the same time other directors like Resnais and Truffaut have seen their names made at festivals overnight, on the flimsy basis of an interesting first film: or, like Jean Vigo, have acquired and held an enormous reputation with a total output of three films—one full feature, one short feature, and one documentary, left unfinished. Some of the reasons why this should happen are obvious, and would apply in any artistic field—publicity build-ups, intellectual fashions and changes of taste, and of course the lasting quality of the films themselves. But there is a further factor built into the structure of the cinema as we know it today, which is unique to the film, and which is responsible for the basic dichotomy between what I would call transparent and opaque cinema.

The cinema of Vigo, Truffaut and Antonioni, and the best European cinema in general, can be described as transparent. The director wears his intentions all the time on his sleeve. He is conscious of what he is doing and articulate about it, and his success depends on his being able to sell his ideas openly to producers and to the critical public. He has sufficient freedom in making his film to express himself as he wishes, and if his intentions are not immediately clear from the finished work, then they will be made so by explanatory interviews and sympathetic criticism from the right quarters. This situation allows for the production (impossible in Hollywood) of highly individual masterpieces like L’Age d’Or or Lettre de Sibérie, but equally for much that is well intentioned, but crudely ideological, rootless and inartistic.

Opaque cinema, by contrast, is that cinema (generally American, but Mizoguchi and perhaps Rossellini can be added to the category) in which neither the director’s intentions nor his achievement can easily be measured in terms of superficial fanfares about original genius. For one thing the achievement may, in exceptional cases, be greater for extraneous reasons than anything consciously intended by the director. For another the intention may be repressed by the production system. The specific distinction of many American directors only becomes apparent with time, and after they have made enough films for the patient critic to be able to trace, through occasional flashes of an obviously personal concern recurrent throughout the director’s work, the connecting thread of a consistent style and set of attitudes. Of the great American directors only Orson Welles had from the beginning the intellectual status and the blatant originality necessary to blast his way to eminence with a first film.

Of the two forms of cinema the opaque is ultimately the more rewarding, and there is a tendency among critics to concern themselves increasingly with the dark undercurrents of Hollywood, and also to carry over the critical methods appropriate to treating opaque films into their study of more transparent directors like Antonioni or Renoir. The result has been slightly to redress the balance between the two forms; to allow advance credit to new American directors like Sam Peckinpah, and to withhold it from striking but wilful and superficial campfollowers of some new wave or other in Europe.

One of the losers in this process has been Alain Resnais, an archetypally transparent director with a low output and correspondingly inflated reputation. Cultured, intellectual, even slightly bellelettriste, he has deliberately put himself outside the usual film-making traditions and conventions to pursue his own highly literary conception of the cinema. A great formal innovator, he has always let himself be guided in matter of content by pre-existing material. He is a scrupulous interpreter rather than an original creator, and his formal originality springs paradoxically from his refusal to add to or subtract from the literary material from which he works. The merit of his translations into film lies in their meticulous fidelity to the spirit and the literary texture of scripts provided by like-thinking writers such as Duras, Robbe-Grillet or Cayrol; and their specifically cinematic interest is due to the technical difficulty of the procedure. The narrative forms of the conventional cinema are basically those of the epic, the romantic drama and the nineteenth-century novel, whose function the cinema has usurped. There is no cinematic equivalent of the modern, post-Jamesian novel, and it is in trying to provide one, by literal translation into another idiom, that Resnais has shown the extent of his talent and his limitations as a creator.

Such an attitude, at a time when specificity in the cinema is measured either by the director’s approach to previous cinematic forms, or by his original thematic contribution to his raw material, is decidedly unfashionable. It has, if anything, a certain experimental value, but, precisely because it is experimental and tentative, it is not really aesthetically satisfying. Short of a perfect fusion of the two, the film always demands ultimately the primacy of action and the image over verbal elements. In Hiroshima mon Amour and in Muriel (less so in Marienbad) Resnais inverts the priorities, and makes the image a commentary on the dialogue or monologue of the characters. Even the acting is a kind of charade miming the conceptual framework of the film, instead of providing the material substance from which the themes can be extrapolated. In the long Nevers sequences in Hiroshima mon Amour the heroine’s reflection on her past evokes a visual commentary as counterpoint, but this commentary is somehow secondary and external. It extends the film, but does not modify its basic structure. In all his films the recurrent obsessions with memory, forgetfulness and death are clearly stated and consistently developed through the counterpoint: there is much subtle interweaving of public and private events, and (particularly in Muriel) the natural objectivity of the image is effectively used to dissipate the fog of falsification imposed by the selective memory of the central characters. Resnais has a style certainly; using the word in its pejorative sense one might say he has too much of one. It is all too much an exercise, a play with the elements of a film. It lacks immediacy, the sense of experience being lived in the here and now. It is inorganic, and this is the key to its weakness. For although at first sight Resnais’ works appear formal, not to say formalistic, in the last resort it is form which they lack the most; unitary and cohesive form to hold the elements in place.

This lack of form arises from a basic hesitancy on his part in the use of fictional material. Resnais is a modest man, and like many apparently modest men he is didactic at heart. He has a fondness for didactic means of expression like the monologue, even if the means is used, as it is in Marienbad, to teach a lesson only of extreme scepticism. The form best suited to this temperament is undoubtedly the documentary, and in a sense all Resnais’ work is documentary, open or disguised. The three feature films, on this account, although necessarily fictional in form, are really barely concealed attempts at reconstruction of a consciousness, subjective documentaries on human subjects which do not happen to be in any real-life case-book: hence their appearance of pedantry. His earlier short films by contrast show a perfect adaptation of artist to material. A frigid tone and a lack of artistic dynamism are not such grave defects in work which sets out, as these documentaries do, to inform and to communicate ideas. And Resnais’ countervailing virtues of intelligence, sophistication and respect, whether for his audience or his material, are worth their weight in gold in a form whose customary vice is platitude. Resnais’ reputation was made in 1959 with the showing of Hiroshima at Cannes: if it survives it will be on the basis of half a dozen shorts made, without critical recognition, before that date.