If most films do not age well, that is largely because they try to provide immediate satisfaction by giving people what they expect, based on conventions and expectations that inevitably change. It is more unusual for a film to date because its serious themes have been superseded by historical development. That is the biggest single problem with Alain Resnais’s La Guerre est Finie (The War is Over). History has caught up with it and passed it. Not film history, for at a purely stylistic level, Guerre remains striking. But events have supplanted, or at least displaced much of the film’s raison d’être.
Yves Montand stars as Diego, a Spaniard living in Paris during the reign of Franco. The film dramatizes his internal struggle as he cools his heels between undercover missions that seem increasingly mechanical and futile. Diego is beginning to wonder whether anyone really cares, including himself. His doubts are contrasted with the Marxist faith of his co-conspirators and the fanaticism of a younger generation more interested in violence than meaningful change. In the film’s terms, there is no safe intellectual haven to which Diego can retreat to deal with his confusion. Communist dogma offers the only alternative to fascist oppression.
Which, in purely historical terms, is where the film feels most dated. It is not just that post-Franco Spain confounded expectations to evolve into a parliamentary democracy. It is also because of the failings of Marxism and the exposure of its adherents as self-deceiving hypocrites, or worse, like the young revolutionaries in the film, as intolerant fanatics with purist convictions more self-indulgent than sympathetic.
Given the largely apolitical nature of most of Alain Resnais’s work, this failure to suggest alternatives to extremes probably results from the contributions of the screenwriter, Jorge Semprun. If we are painfully aware of the story’s historical myopia, it is because Diego is defined politically and therefore limited. Montand gives him an appealing, ruminative ennui, but it is clearly the actor to whom we are responding, not Diego, who is nearly as abstract and formulaic as the political parrots with whom he associates. (Can’t a revolutionary have a hobby, or read a novel, or love good food?) Diego has a mistress (Ingrid Thulin), a one-off with a teenager (Genevieve Bujold); he pines ruefully at the fate of his fellow conspirators. But nothing in his life exceeds his politics.
There is, of course, some truth in depicting Marxists as impersonal technicians of power. When their mechanistic thinking becomes the basis of a film, however, there’s very little left with which viewers can sympathize. When Guerre was made, there were perhaps plenty in the audience who could be relied upon to identify unconditionally with Diego and his “mission.” Today, it is difficult to see him as anything better than a world-weary cipher, and more than a touch unimaginative. Marxists like to dismiss their opponents as being “on the wrong side of history.” They should know; they speak from experience.