“La Guerre est Finie” - Alain Resnais (1966)

Alain Resnais’s fourth feature film, La Guerre est Finie (English: The War is Over, 1966) was, like his previous three features – Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963) – another cinematic expedition into how we construct our personal narratives from ideas and past memories.  On this occasion, though, his film was less overtly theoretical and had more dramatic action and a tense political context that perhaps makes it more accessible than his earlier works [1,2]. Nevertheless, the film is very much a continuation of Resnais’s contemplative themes about love and life.

The story of La Guerre est Finie concerns a few days in the life of a contemporary (1965) Spanish revolutionary, Diego Mora, who has spent his life working to overthrow the long-ruling fascist Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco.  Franco had come to power during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) [3], when fascist forces overthrew the democratically elected Republican government.  Since, at the time, that  overthrown Spanish republican government had included communists and socialists, it was one of the rare times in history in which such a leftist government had emerged in a democratic fashion.  As such, that Spanish republican government has always been cherished by leftists who believed in the peaceful emergence of socialism, and so its restoration had always been for them a romantic dream. 
Thus, on one level at least, Diego represents one of those romantic dreamers dedicated to (re-)establishing that idyllic socialist paradise.  But Diego in this film is not just an abstraction; he undoubtedly reflects to some degree the real-life characteristics and circumstances of the film’s screenwriter, Jorge Semprun.  Semprun had a fascinating background. After having been  imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II, he worked clandestinely in Spain as an anti-Franco revolutionary for the Communist party from 1953 to 1962.  In 1964 he was expelled from the Spanish Communist Party over ideological differences, whereupon he commenced his writing career, with La Guerre est Finie as his first output.  He would subsequently contribute to the scripts of a number of political thrillers, including Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), The Confession (1970), Special Section (1979), and Resnais’s Stavisky... (1974).  He later even served as Spain’s Minister of Culture from 1988 to 1991.

So Semprun was not only a social activist but a thinker, and what we have in La Guerre est Finie is a full-spectrum depiction of a thoughtful man, a man with ideas, worries, goals, and passions. Resnais tells this tale, in cooperation with his frequent cinematographer Sacha Vierny and musical composer Giovanni Fusco (Hiroshima Mon Amour, L’Avventura, L’Eclisse, Red Desert), by offering in slow-disclosure fashion a potpourri of incidental detail that conjures up the inner, mental life of the protagonist [4].  This includes momentary flashbacks as well as imaginary “flash-forwards” – worriedly imagined possible future events.  These suggest that the narrative witness is not just an external companion that is observing the action, but is also privy to Diego’s stream of consciousness. All this is more impressionistic than expressionist (although the word “impressionistic” has been confusingly used in the past with respect to films, and I will not dwell on that term), and it represents one of the most refined examples of Resnais’s unique style of storytelling.

Resnais’s approach here can only work if the director has good acting in the key roles, and Resnais was fortunate to work on this occasion with two stars who gave outstanding performances: Yves Montand and Ingrid Thulin.  Indeed, although the film’s focalization is almost exclusively on Diego, Thulin’s sensitive performance as his girlfriend is, to me, the most crucial element in the film.

As mentioned above, the film dwells in Diego’s mental space, and he we see that he is not just a monomaniac obsessed with his revolutionary activism; he is, like most all people, a complex individual with multiple areas of concern.  Three of these areas, or levels, are of especial significance, each of which has its associated narrative:
  • Political Justice
    Diego is a professional revolutionary who has no other occupation than to work secretly to undermine the Franco government.  Associated with this level of concern is the Marxist-Leninist narrative that prescribes a roadmap for obtaining the desired revolutionary outcome. Diego operates within this narrative, but since it has failed to make progress in Spain for more than twenty-five years, he has serious doubts as to its efficacy.
  • Romantic Adventure.
    Diego is an adventurer who enjoys the excitement and camaraderie of working together on dangerous missions. He tells his girlfriend, Marianne, that when he is outside of Spain, he misses “being part of something together.” Irrespective of whether the grand communist design is succeeding, Diego revels in his abilities to be a major player in this game, and this includes spontaneous romantic episodes with similarly inclined adventurers of the opposite sex. In this connection Diego plays many distinct roles with separate aliases for each role.
  • Love.
    One of those past romantic episodes evolved into a serious relationship with a woman who loves him passionately. His now steady girlfriend, Marianne, wants them to have a long life together, and she spends her time thinking of narrative possibilities that could make this happen.
All of Diego’s sometimes-conflicting narratives on these three levels involve wishful goals that are fraught with roadblocks. And in none of these narrative levels of Diego's does hatred or resentment play a role. As the film proceeds, we see Diego’s struggles to come to terms with his multi-layered life.
In the opening sequence, Diego Mora (played by Yves Montand) and his communist sympathizer friend Jude arrive from Spain at the French border town of Biriatou, where Diego is interrogated by a French border inspector (Michel Piccoli).  Diego is illegally entering under the name of René Sallanches, whose passport he is using, and when he is interrogated he coolly fools the guards with his detailed knowledge of the Sallanches family, information about whom he has memorized but whom he has never met. 

Diego goes by many names, and to his communist colleagues, he is “Carlos”.  He spends six months of the year in Madrid and the other six months in Paris working for the party in its efforts to upend the Spanish government by means of labor unrest.  We learn that Diego is returning on his own initiative to France on this occasion in order to warn his communist colleague Juan not to enter Spain from France, because the Spanish authorities are arresting all his close comrades in Madrid and will likely arrest Juan, too, if he arrives there.

Diego goes to Paris and eventually hooks up with (these people are always shifting to clandestine locations) cell boss, Roberto (Paul Crauchet), whom he urges to stop Juan’s imminent departure to Spain. But Roberto overrules Diego, telling him that Juan is urgently needed in Spain to make preparations for a May Day general strike and public demonstration that is only twelve days away.  Roberto, who is doctrinaire communist functionary, tells him that the comrades in Madrid always exaggerate any danger: “they’re too close to things to see the situation clearly.”  So here is a conflict across Diego’s narrative levels.  On the personal “Romantic Adventure” level Diego is concerned about the safety of his comrade Juan; but his superior on the “Public Justice” level tells him that the bigger picture is more important and that he should ignore his concerns about Juan.

But Diego persists on the Romantic Adventure level.  Curious to know more about the Sallanches family, whose daughter Nadine had covered for him when the border police had called her, he tracks down their apartment and is greeted by the beautiful Nadine (Genevieve Bujold).  Nadine, who has communist sympathies,  is impressed that Diego, he calls himself “Domingo” here, is a full-time revolutionary.  Before long they are kissing and wind up making love.  Afterwards they part with the mutual understanding that their encounter was just a romantic moment.

Then Diego goes to his real girlfriend Marianne’s (Ingrid Thulin) apartment, which is where he normally resides when he is in Paris.  Now we enter into the “Love” narrative level, and in this context Diego begins to acknowledge aloud some of the absurdities of his long-frustrated political activities. He tells some of Marianne’s guests,
“Spain is no longer the dream of 1936, but the truth of 1965.”
Later that night Diego and Marianne passionately make love.  It is interesting to compare the two love-making scenes.  With both women, Diego’s approach of undressing his lovers is the same, suggesting he is initially in similar mental states.  But although the two scenes are sensuous, they have distinct feelings to them.  The scene with Nadine is abstract and full of tender innocence (Romantic Adventure); while the scene with Marianne is deeper and more intensely involving (Love).

The next morning Diego attends a meeting with his doctrinaire Spanish Communist Party overseers, and he internally reflects on the futility of “trying to rebuild your country from afar in the likeness of your memory.”  But he is loyal.  As he enters the meeting room he thinks to himself,
“You see once more those desiccated, tireless, worn-out men, fastidious about detail but less clear about the larger picture. . . . Ready to die: your comrades.”
He urges them to cancel the May Day strike, because the Spanish government will be ready for it, but again he is overruled.  In this context, factual evidence and good sense are less important than the ability to quote Lenin.

Later Diego becomes aware that the supposedly innocent Nadine is involved with a youthful gang of communist revolutionaries who pursue a more violent agenda: they want to destabilize the Spanish government by disrupting the tourism industry with terrorist bombings.  Diego is also concerned about Nadine’s safety when he learns that she and her friends are now under police surveillance. 

When Diego returns to Marianne’s apartment, she informs him that he has new, urgent orders to return to Spain the next morning.  Now Diego’s three narrative levels are coming clashingly together.
  • He wants to stop Nadine and her gang from undertaking terrorist acts.
  • He wants to be with Marianne
  • He doesn’t want to carry out the Party’s orders for the new mission.
But Marianne, realizing how important his political activities in Spain are for him, offers her loving support and even says she is willing to move to Spain in order to be with him.  Diego is his typical noncommital self in this exchange:
Marianne: “I love you.”
Diego: “I know you do.”
Nevertheless, Marianne’s love for Diego is boundless.

The next morning Diego resignedly gets ready to go and reflects that, despite his world-weariness, he is still committed to action:
“You’re seized again by the comradeship of long battles. . . . by the stubborn joy of taking action.”
This would seem to indicate that the Political Justice narrative takes final precedence in the film.  However, in the film’s final five minutes the focalization, which had exclusively been on Diego up to this point, shifts to Nadine and Marianne.  We learn that the film’s initial border-crossing event was not so successfully transacted as we had presumed.  Diego’s return to Spain will place him in extreme danger, and Nadine and Marianne rush to try stop him from reentering Spain before it is too late.  Love comes to the fore.

The final shot of the film features a slow dissolve, superposing images of the fatalistically committed Diego and Marianne’s desperate, unvanquishable love, as she attempts to save him.  This, combined with Giovanni Fusco’s celestial music, gave me an epiphany of love’s limitless grace, and it represents one of the greatest film endings I have ever seen.

What makes La Guerre est Finie a great film is that it is not just about a fading political dream, but about life itself.  It is more generally concerned with how we can manage to blend the “I” (Romantic Adventure) with the “We” (Political Justice), and Love is the mysterious key to this, as exemplified by Ingrid Thulin’s moving performance.  Diego’s commitment to his communist goals can be considered in this case to stand for whatever we choose to do in the public world.  These goals we need to fit together with a meaningful sense of spirited adventure that animates our existence.  This can be hard to manage and sustain, but love can often offer the grace to save us and keep us going.

It is especially appropriate to see La Guerre est Finie now, in these recent times of social catastrophe, when the US electorate has pushed America onto a course of permanent eclipse.  The election of a volatile man and his bigoted, rent-seeking entourage bent on dismantling the American institutional structures of democracy, human rights, and the rule-of-law that have long served as a beacon to the wider world can be disheartening to those who have dedicated their lives to making the world a better, more cooperative, place [5,6,7,8]. Many people may be demoralized in the face of the relentlessly backwards-moving  path we are now facing, as another fascist specter has arisen.  But we should not give up [6]. We should instead be inspired by the inarticulable message implicit in this story of La Guerre est Finie.  Look at Marianne’s earnest gaze at the close of the film and forever hold onto it.

  1. Acquarello, “06-06-04: Alain Resnais by James Monaco”, Strictly Film School, (2004).  
  2. Acquarello, “La Guerre est finie, 1966 [The War is Over]”, Strictly Film School, (2003).  
  3. Matthew White, “Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and Franco Regime (1939-75)”, Necrometrics, The Historical Atlas of the 20th Century, (2011).   
  4. Lisa Broad, “La Guerre est finie”, Issue 58, Senses of Cinema, (14 March 2011). 
  5. Meghan O’Rourke, “Mourning Trump and the America We Could Have Been”, The New Yorker, (10 November 2016).  
  6. Masha Gessen, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”. The New York Review of Books, (10 November 2016).  
  7. Adam Davidson, “What Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand About ‘the Deal’”, The New York Times, (17 March 2016).   
  8. Zoe Williams, “The Dangerous Fantasy Behind Trump’s Normalisation”, The Guardian, (15 November 2016).  

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