PARIS: Arthouse filmmaker Alain Resnais, a New Wave icon turned grand old man of French cinema, has died in Paris aged 91.
With a shock of wiry white hair and trademark dark shades, Resnais was a much-loved figure in the French film world and a regular presence at top festivals from Cannes to Berlin.
His latest film “Life of Riley,” based on an Alan Ayckbourn play, won a prize for innovation in Berlin last month.
The maverick director died late Saturday “surrounded by his family and friends,” said his producer Jean-Louis Livi.
Film greats and politicians joined in tribute to Resnais’ half-century career, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hailing “a very great talent, universally known.”
Cannes Festival head Thierry Fremaux shared his sadness at losing “a giant of the film world,” known for working with a familiar troupe of actor friends.
Resnais’s first slot at Cannes was for the New Wave classic “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” screened out of competition in 1959.
Still directing as he reached 90 – increasingly whimsical comedies with themes of love, memory and mortality – he told Cannes two years ago he made films “for myself, like DIY.”
“It’s like a laboratory experiment in which you mix things without knowing what the result will be.”
At the time of his death, Resnais was working on the script for a new film, according to Livi, who produced his most recent works.
Born on June 3, 1922 in the western city of Vannes, Resnais made a short film on the storybook villain “Fantomas” at the tender age of 13.
He studied at the national film school IDHEC in Paris and began making short documentaries in 1946. His best-known early work was the 1955 30-minute “Nuit et Brouillard” (Night and Fog), a stark documentary on Auschwitz scripted by a former deportee.
Riding the crest of the New Wave in the 1960s, he stood slightly apart from contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut.
While they filmed young Parisians in the streets with hand-held cameras, Resnais played with narrative “flash-ins” that mingled past and present.
His early features, including “Hiroshima mon Amour” and the influential 1961 work “L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad” (Last Year at Marienbad), drew on the work of modernist French authors Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Resnais joined in the militancy of the 1960s, contributing to the collective films “Loin du Vietnam” and “L’An 01.”
From the 1970s onward, Resnais’ films became lighter and more accessible, and his 1998 quasi-musical “On Connait la Chanson” (The Same Old Song) was a box office hit with 2.7 million entries in France alone.
An ardent Anglophile, Resnais turned to English playwright David Mercer in 1977 for the screenplay of “Providence.” Sir John Gielgud, who starred in the film, described Resnais as “the most English of French directors.”
The English connection turned up elsewhere, as with Ayckbourn’s play “Intimate Relations,” which Resnais turned into the 1993 diptych “Smoking” and “No Smoking,” among his most celebrated works.
For “The Same Old Song” he borrowed from television playwright Dennis Potter, whose series “The Singing Detective” used a lip-sync technique in which actors mimed the words of popular songs.
Resnais remained one of the most experimental French filmmakers, playing with chronology and perspectives and dipping in and out of parallel worlds.
“If Resnais had gone into the culinary arts instead of the cinematic ones,” speculated Variety’s review of his last film, “then surely he would have emerged as a molecular gastronomist ... whipping up foie gras-flavored cotton candy as if it were the most normal thing in the world.”
The Cannes festival awarded him a lifetime achievement prize in 2009 for the almost 50 works to his name, including some 20 feature films.
Resnais said his 2012 movie, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” about a group of actors who gather at the house of a playwright friend after he dies, was not intended as a summing up of his career.
“If I had thought the movie would be perceived as a testament,” he said at the time, “I would never have had the courage to make it.”
He married twice, and is survived by his second wife, Sabine Azema.