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Conference examines the films of French director Alain Resnais

From a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps to a historical drama about an infamous embezzler to a light-hearted comedy-drama about the effects of terminal illness, Alain Resnais’ work has always been marked by its diversity of both genre and tone.

Resnais was a French film director whose work spanned over 60 years, from the time directly after World War II through contemporary society. Spanning a variety of cinematographic genres and eras, his work is notable for an emphasis on form, strong political statements and a commitment to incorporating a variety of other artistic formats. His work and impact are the subjects of the upcoming Resnais Archipelago Conference at Duke Oct. 29-31, hosted by the Center for French and Francophone Studies and co-organized by Anne-Gaëlle Saliot, assistant professor of French studies, and associate professor of music Jacqueline Waeber.

Saliot described Resnais’s work as “very interesting, very original cinematographic art. He reinvented himself every film, exploring lots of different genres.”

The Resnais Archipelago Conference, a collaborative effort with the Cinémathèque Française and the University of Paris VII-Diderot, will be the first conference examining Resnais’ work since his death last March. The conference includes five panels and three keynote speakers and aims to be truly international, including scholars from France, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

The title of the conference, the Resnais Archipelago, comes from an image introduced by the scholars Jean-Louis Leutrat and Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues. They used the archipelago to represent Resnais’s oeuvre. Although his films seem to be disparate, the archipelago emphasizes that his work is linked by common themes.

“The archipelago is a poetic metaphor but efficient conceptually, conveying the notion of a diverse topography and subterranean threads that run through his work," Saliot said. 

Some of those threads include, “history, memory, image and narration," according to Saliot. 

The conference's panels are centered on thematic ideas like these, including one titled “History and Subjectivity” and one on the “Materiality of Memory.” The conference seeks to emphasize the common themes and ideas of Resnais’ work, focusing on the similarities rather than the oft-cited differences.

The conference is also highly interdisciplinary in nature, bringing such topics as politics, philosophy, music and art into conversation with one another.

When asked why a conference seemingly about film seeks to address such topics, Saliot replied, “Because cinema is about life. You cannot talk about Alain Resnais without talking about these things.”

Resnais’s work was clearly shaped by his political beliefs. His 1953 film "Statues Also Die" dealt with the effects of French colonialism on the art of Sub-Saharan Africa. It was so controversial that, at the time of its release, parts of it were censored in France. He also contributed to the 1967 film "Far From Vietnam," a film that took the controversial stance of showing sympathy for North Vietnam.

In addition to the political aspects of his work, Saliot explained that many scholars now find his work to have philosophical value as well.

“Resnais managed to create new cinematic forms that engaged philosophers to talk about cinema as an aesthetic form, but also as a conceptual form," Saliot said. 

The Resnais Archipelago Conference is an international, collaborative attempt at looking at the work and influence of one film director from a variety of perspectives. The conference will attempt to look at his complete body of work as a whole, unified by common themes and motifs, rather than as separate, disconnected parts of his career. Likewise, the conference will not limit itself to a single discipline,  engaging ideas of history, film studies, literature and philosophy, in order to gain a more complete understanding of the influence exerted by Alain Resnais.

In the words of Saliot, Resnais is “one of the most prominent figures in French and in world cinema.”

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