Resnais talks about the making of and motivations behind his time-travel film Je t’aime Je t’aime, which he insists is not science fiction, in an interview from 1968.
How long was the shoot?
Let’s first talk a little bit about the hero, Claude Rich/Ridder. In a certain manner, could we say that he’s a “dirty intellectual lacking in interest”? I mean, with all the tenderness that that definition brings when we've seen the film?
Exactly, yes. We could say that he’s a “weak” hero—and that was already a criticism that had been made about the hero in The War Is Over. But I think it’s more and more difficult, if not impossible, to depict heroes that are really above us. I mean, today we couldn’t make The Lives of a Bengal Lancer... In the state we’re in and the world with us... But the truth is that I don’t have a preconceived idea. The character has to be alive. And then, the idea of “weak heroes”... For me, the totally weak film character is James Bond because he’s imaginary, fabricated... It’s true that this Ridder is annoying: his hesitations, his refusals... Often, during production, we would say, “This Ridder is annoying us.” One could say he’s part of my generation, and Sternberg’s. He’s my contemporary... And, undoubtedly, like everyone, I’ve only ever done this: describe people my age who live in a universe familiar to me. We all have our limits.
What’s striking about the film is that we see Claude Rich at different times in his life: when he’s dying, he must be about 42, but we’ve seen him when he’s only 28. And there’s an extraordinary change in his face, his wrinkles, his expressions. Is it makeup?
What you’ve just said makes me very happy because there was no makeup trick. That’s the work of a major actor who is literally putting himself in the skin—and the age—of his character. His head is transformed with situations that are really far apart in time. I’d already observed this once with Emmanuelle Riva. There were scenes where she was supposed to be 18 and when we started preparing those scenes, I saw her face transform. She became younger before our eyes. That’s what happened with Rich. He is, I believe, a major actor. He creates a lot in a role. I looked for who could play Ridder for a long time, but once I found Rich and knew it was him, the die was cast. He was so... obvious. I would have refused to make the film without him. He brought a lot to us.
“memory is a sieve—and it’s about knowing why some things pass through the sieve and not others.”
Does he resemble the character in real life? Or is it you or Sternberg?
We all put some of ourselves into the films we make... We use things we know, experiences we’ve had. But I know that actors play a big part in creation. I’m in the category of directors who consider the worth of a film to be due in part to the actor, in part to the screenwriters and in part to the director. You have to accept being three in films.
Why does the film take place in Belgium?
That’s not by accident. I’m not Belgian, but it’s a country that has always—how do I put it?... to which I’ve always been sensitive: Magritte, Delvaux, the light, a certain quality of light, surrealism, the Belgian tradition of fantasy, etc. And then, Sternberg is Belgian. And a lot of his personal mythology is in the film. Jean Ray, the author of The Adventures of Harry Dickson, a film that I’ve dreamed of making for 12 years, was Belgian. I didn’t know it. And then, Belgium is the first border I crossed. In ’46-’47... it was for American films we couldn’t see in Paris. Serials that came to Brussels, we went to see them in a theater in the Place de l’Etang Noir. Always fantasy... It all left a mark on me. Belgium, for me, is the imaginary...
“Belgian light”... it’s interesting, especially in relation to the color. After Muriel, it’s your second color film.
Yes. But, for me, that’s not very important. I have one directing rule: don’t worry about color. I’d never add a spot of color to a set to make it better. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done. What Antonioni does is admirable. But I don’t know how to do that. Not in this kind of story, in any case. I don’t use color dramatically.
Still, there’s an extraordinary amount of detail in the sets, the places where Ridder lives. And very interesting choices for the supporting roles, a lot of amateurs, friends of yours: Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Semprun, Doniol-Valcroze, etc.
I don’t believe in extras. Extras always look like extras. It’s a matter of realism. But the professional supporting cast—the scientists, for example—I chose very carefully and obsessively. They were all in the same year at the Conservatory and that allowed me to get from them the impression of collectivity, of people who know each other and have worked together for a long time. That’s Roger Planchon’s lesson. He told me one day, when I was watching him work with his troupe, “Anyone can play a big part. A small role is much harder.” In George Dandin, he made Jean Bouise an extra. And that gave an added force to each scene.
Outside of the obvious things expressed by the film—the life of a man in fragments, the work of time and memory, the portrait of a man, his weaknesses and moments of joy—what else is there to say?
That it’s not a science fiction film, of course. But the scientists’ “fiction,” I stand by that. It’s not only a pretext for the unfolding of man’s life. There has to be, at the very beginning of the film, a certain atmosphere that the music has to highlight... I also think that one of the subjects of the film, with regards to Claude Ridder, is asking the question: can one live as much in the margins as him? Can one spend one’s whole life like that, completely to the side? And then, there’s also the obsession with death... And also the theme that we always kill the one’s we love—even if it’s not physically... And in the choice of the moments Ridder remembers, chance plays a part, of course, but it’s not only that. Because memory is a sieve—and it’s about knowing why some things pass through the sieve and not others. So, for example, there are the scenes where we see Ridder waiting for a streetcar: it’s maybe because, in life, we spend so much time waiting for something, a streetcar, a train, a car, someone. And also all the scenes that happen in bed—but it’s really stupid because since we spend a third of our life in bed, we simply forget it, so when that’s shown in a movie it’s surprising...
That all explains and justifies the film’s form, the editing that was respected. But, first, I think that I will always remain faithful to André Breton and a certain form of automatic writing. I respect him so much. I’ve always wanted to conform to that idea... And, besides, I think that we can no longer make films any other way now.
I often thought of Vertigo while watching your film.
That makes me really happy. I really like Vertigo. In that as well there’s the same attempt to rediscover lost time...