Memory and its perceived experience is the central subject of the films of Alain Resnais. The same can be said of Resnais’ film Je t’Aime, Je t’Aime (1968), the first film to mark a departure from the style of Last Year At Marienbad (1961) and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and from the collaboration and influence of the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. Je t’Aime, Je t’Aime is a much bolder approach to the philosophical writings of Henri Bergson than Resnais had ever offered before. The film is also significant in that its filmic style, particularly in its montage, is the beginning of Resnais’ move away from classicism and into modernism.
Je t’Aime, Je t’Aime is explicitly indebted to Chris Marker’s film La Jetee (1962), barrowing not only the film’s narrative structure but also its premise. Resnais was intrigued by Marker’s concept of memory as a psychologically motivated experience, and sought to explore the theme by implementing modes of melodrama in the scenes depicting flashbacks. By doing this, Resnais imbues his film with an emotive power that Marker deemed a second priority in his own film.
Like La Jetee, Je t’Aime, Je t’Aime tells the story of a man who allows himself to be subjected to a time travel experiment, but gets lost in the own recourse of his memory based upon psychological associations. Resnais’ protagonist Claude (Claude Rich) undergoes a far more specific kind of association than the hero of Marker’s film. Resnais arranges Claude’s journey through his memory via the associations of cause and effect. For instance, because Claude and his lover spent an afternoon at the beach, Resnais shows them next warming by the fire later that night. This simple alignment not only allows the audience to approach Claude’s flashbacks objectively, but also manages to function as a dissection of dramatic arcs.
By focusing on the cause and effect of Claude’s life in flashbacks Resnais negates the necessity for rising and falling actions. This focuses the scenes to present Claude’s life in emotional extremes without any transition or context clues. The audience is then forced to deal with aligning the flashbacks linearly on their own as well as navigating an emotional terrain of exaggerated melodrama. La Jetee could not hope to accomplish such a drastic rearrangement of the cinematic form since it is limited by time and technique, the same shortcomings responsible for its tremendous innovations.
The dramatic fracturing of narrative and its dramatic arcs in Je t’Aime, Je t’Aime are what make this Resnais’ best film, as well as his film that comes closest to capturing the essence of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s essays For A New Novel (1963). By following Marker’s example of the human experience of memory Resnais is forced to remove dramatic scenes from their broader context, a device that Robbe-Grillet advocates as a step in the direction of “true literature”. Robbe-Grillet theorizes that by stripping the novel of its psychological and philosophical insights to favor only the facts of characters lives devoid of speculation forces the reader to manufacture the missing components themselves and by doing so become far more engaged in the writing both psychologically and philosophically. Resnais is essentially doing the same thing with the fractured text of his film. As audience members we must align events to make some sort of narrative sense, but at the same time Asses the validity of Claude’s decisions and his interactions without traditional character development or context. This effect in Je t’Aime, Je t’Aime could be equated to cutting all of the shots and scenes without dialogue in my favorite film by Ozu, The Equinox Flower (1958). Ozu’s film would appear non-sensical, and the audience would be forced to invent half of the cinematic experience for themselves.
Interestingly, Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet had parted ways as collaborators five years before Je t’Aime Je t’Aime went into production. The fact that the film adheres to Robbe-Grillet’s theories indicates the degree to which the two men had fused their ideas and their approach. However, Je t’Aime, Je t’Aime is notable for its quick cuts and visual energy, a component Robbe-Grillet could not have brought to Last Year In Marienbad, but could only flourish in Resnais’ work when he was left alone to develop his projects.