Toute la Mémoire du Monde

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 29, 2015

This one demonstrates the untapped, unsuspected, maybe immeasurable potential of the industrial or instructional film. Does it take a French guy? Across the way from the nation of moneychangers in the temples of culture and learning, it is clear that doing an interrogation of and an homage to the bibliothèque nationale de France requires so much more imagination and intelligence, conviction and reverence than almost any commercial job could ever do. (Film-historically, when this was made the New Wavers are at the doors, but hadn’t arrived yet. Resnais was developing, leaping and bounding, just over from all of them. But you can sure tell that something’s in the air!) And it goes without saying that the worthy shouldering of that load will bring benefits beyond the dreams of commerce, let alone avarice. Plus, small can be so much better than large.

There’s a nice little gimmick that provides a narrative through line, as it were. It’s this just published little book, this academic monograph, which we see as it gets received and processed and placed. It is its own small self, simultaneously inconsequential and completely deserving of all of this fuss. This is because it represents and reminds us of all the books published all the way back past memory—though not past recording, or retrieving. This, multiplied infinitely, with all of this bibliographical fuss and devotion, adds up to the knowledge and heritage of Mankind.

Protesting too much? This could have been dumb, or a mere straining after effect. It’s neither of those things because while maintaining this little conceit, Resnais—and Forlani, and Clouquet and Jarre too—don’t scruple to take their little assignment as seriously as they can, and to fulfill it honourably. Take note, film students, and jaded or disappointed film professionals. Doctrine and Covenants 51: 17. In fact, more than just doing their duty, this ensemble of collaborators pull out all of the visual and the aural, the structural and rhetorical stops. The result is positively magisterial.

They’ve composed and performed a concerto grosso, an alternation between small forces—the particulars of this specific bit of cataloging—and large, which would be all of the philosophical implication that they can fit in. In this they musically and historically evoke the Enlightenment, when rational inquiry could paradoxically and gloriously be an expression and manifestation of deepest feeling and devotion. One of their greatest coups is to bring all this into the cinematic present by means of a very successful intertextual joke. With this book, this tiny object in the midst of ridiculous wealth, they have invoked Rosebud and referenced Welles—as well as very effectively utilizing his stylistic mannerisms.

But though the images echo and resemble richly, Resnais transforms Welles’ (and Mankiewicz’s) anxious, alienated treatise on the inaccessibility of truth into a piece of Utopian rationality. We have some lecturing, some distancing or even alienation effects (the musical score puts us off like an imperious schoolmaster), but in the end we have clarity and possibility and gratitude. And all of this is before the work that made Resnais so famous and controversial and celebrated. Historians, and regular folk, would do well to access it all. As is so often the case, that which is considered marginal can be very major indeed.