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Film is for me an attempt,
still very rough and very primitive,
to approach the complexity of thought
and its mechanism.
Alain Resnais

The Stream of Consciousness
in the Films of Alain Resnais




The representation of thoughts and emotions streaming through a character's mind is imperative in cinematic expression. It grants penetration beyond the character's surface behavior and reaches inner dimensions of his existence. The challenge is vital in a medium which photographically reproduces the concrete visible world in action rather than the intangible invisible drama within the individual's consciousness.

The book introduces the potentialities of a cinematic representation of STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS through the achievements of Alain Resnais. Of all filmmakers, he has been the most involved in a deliberate effort to represent mental processes of characters in his films. The insights presented in this book have been reached through a close examination of the practice of major filmmakers.

HAIM CALEV is a theoretician and a practising filmmaker. He has a Ph.D. in Film from Columbia University. Among other publications by the author is the book Cinematic Expression, a two part study of expressive practices in the first centenary of cinema, based on film analysis. Part one deals with cinematic space and part two with cinematic time.








Initial Problems 9
Suggestion of Thought through External Activities 10
Suggestion of Thought through Objective Correlatives 12
Potentialities of the Film Medium in Simulating Thought 16
The Term "Stream of Consciousness" 20
Value of Cinematic Representation of Thought 26
Resnais' Preoccupation with Stream of Consciousness 31


Brief Injection of Mental Images Simulating Thought 33
The Stream of Consciousness in'La guerre est finie'38
Analysis of Mental Units 40
Value Added by the Stream of Consciousness 98
The Stream of Consciousness in'Hiroshima mon amour'103
Analysis of Mental Units 104
Value Added by the Stream of Consciousness 148


Narrative Structure Simulating Thought in 'Je t'aime je t'aime'153
The Anchoring Reality 158
The Mental Flow 164
The Character's Mental Selection 169
The Character's Mental Succession 177
Value Added by the Stream of Consciousness 181


Narrative Fluidity Simulating Thought 185
The Stream of Consciousness in 'Providence' 187
The Fictional Premise 187
The Anchoring Reality 194
The Character's Mental Flow 199
The Stream of Consciousness in 'Last Year at Marienbad' 207
The Fictional Premise 207
The Gamut of Possibilities 210
The Anchoring Reality 217
The Characters' Mental Flow 222


Anchoring 230
Mental Selection 233
Mental Succession 234
Enigmatic Mental Images 235
Patterns of Repetition 236
Alternatives to Structural Principles 237





The challenge to represent thoughts and emotions as they stream through the minds of cinematic characters is of paramount importance. The expressive powers of the cinematic medium can contribute to a unique exploration of the mind's operating mechanism, thus leading to a better comprehension of interior life. Most enlightening insights about the drama that takes place within the individual's consciousness can be pinpointed and medially fleshed out.

The cinematic medium presents inherent potentialities for the representation of mental processes. The non-verbal prespeech level of thought can find its equivalent in the primary non-cognitive nature of cinematic images and sounds. Instantaneous transitions between shots can follow the most whimsical connections between images and entire spatial audio-visual configurations, thus simulating free association. Varying rhythms of exchange between images can be intermittently used to represent mental processes and the external world.

To date, the most valuable representation of stream of consciousness has been achieved in literature. Most enlightening insights into the human spirit have been reached through its practice. Literature as a medium is however confined to the verbal system of abstraction. Consequently, it is also limited in the artistic analogy it can produce to the characters' mental flow.

The importance of a cinematic representation of stream of consciousness is that it offers an entirely different system of abstraction and a different arsenal of expressive tools. Consequenly, it makes possible an alternative exploration of thoughts and emotions, which are accessible only to its representational apparatus, thus enabling the creation of a uniquely cinematic analogy to the mental flow.

However, while some of the best achievements in cinematic culture are to be found in films representing the characters' mental flow, only a partial and timid usage of the potentialities, available in the medium for such representation, has been exploited.

Considering the importance of reaching a fuller cinematic representation of stream of consciousness, this book presents a systematic study of its application by one of its most consistant and committed practitioners, Alain Resnais. His accomplishments in exploring the potentialities of the medium, and in creating expressive tools for such representation, have been closely examined in a shot by shot analysis of five of his feature films. Mental evocations and their anchoring sequences have been graphically described and timed in story board drawings. These descriptions are presented in the chapter on The Flash of Thought strategy, while they are omitted in discussing other strategies, for the sake of a more fluent presentation.

This study should lead to a better understanding of the potentialities of the cinematic medium in representing stream of consciousness and should create analytical tools for the evaluation of such practices.




The obvious resources of the cinematic medium are the visible world and its activities. Cinematography1 can easily capture visual action and its sounds. Characters involved in dramatic interaction are fully accessible to its technological apparatus. Genres depending on external action are most prolific: silent-comedy, westerns, detectives, film-noire, thrillers, musicals, science fiction - to cite just a few. Some of the best achievements in the history of the motion picture are to be found in such genres.

Cinematography cannot penetrate beyond the visible and audible surface behavior of characters and cannot capture the flow of thoughts, feelings, emotions, fantasies or any other mental process within their minds. This flow can be indirectly suggested through its effects on the characters' external activity and through their dramatic functioning in the plot. Speech and dialogue are far from being expressions of their mental flow; most often they are attempts to conceal it rather than reveal it. It can also be suggested through their body language, their movement, their gestures and their facial expressions.2 The intimacy of the screen, the possibility of showing characters in their most private moments at very close range, in close-up, conditions the viewer for the next step, the next phase of subjectivity - the penetration into their mental flow.3 This conditioning keeps tantalizing the viewer and teasing his curiosity, yet a direct depiction of the mental flow remains beyond the reach of the cinematographic apparatus.


Film as a medium has two inherent difficulties in the direct representation of mental processes of fictional characters. The first comes from the temporal nature of the medium. The very illusion of a mental flow depends on non-linear and non-chronological structures and on private implications of images, which must appear enigmatic to suggest the privacy and whimsy of consciousness. The viewer could easily lose track of such intricate structures because of the temporal nature of the medium. The constant flux of images on the screen does not provide time for deciphering. In literary practices similar non-linear structures create a less grave obstacle in comprehension, since the reading process is not irreversible and the reader can use his time and attention to respond to the challenge of following the artistic organization of a mental flow.

The second difficulty stems from the inherent concrete nature of the cinematic image. Images and sounds, even when combined in an artistic form, may seem to be reproductions of reality. As such they carry an inherent resistance to being organized in structures simulating a process as abstract and as interior as thought. Words, on the other hand, being abstract signs endowed with connotations and blessed with ambiguity, are less resistant to being organized in structures designed to create the illusion of a mental flow.

On the other hand, film has inherent potentialities for an adequate and effective representation of mental processes. The most obvious perhaps is that the medium uses two channels: picture and sound. This in itself offers the possibility to represent the occurrence of an interior flow of thoughts in a character's consciousness simultaneously with his involvement in external activity. The sound can reflect his thoughts, while the image shows the activity, or vice versa.8

Second, a similar simultaneity of thoughts and external activity can be created by two channels of images. Simultaneity among several external actions can be effectively suggested through the well-established cinematic practice of "parallel action". Two actions, happening at the same time in different locations, are shown intermittently, through a rhythmical intercut between them. The viewer keeps both in mind, because of his tendency to retain images after their actual disappearance from the screen and because of familiar images in both locations, which help him to reorient immediately after transition from one action to another. Similarly, two channels of images can be created in order to suggest mental processes. The one can show external 'reality' and the other the flow of mental images. Distinct visual qualities or rhythms of editing in each channel can differentiate between the two. The possible swiftness of the mental sequence, for instance, can make the mental interruption less noticeable and thus enhance the feeling of its simultaneous occurrence with the external action. The orientation of the viewer can be helped by immediately recognizable familiar images before departure from 'reality' and immediately after return to it.

Third, images and sounds can represent the non-verbal and non-cognitive dimensions of mental functioning more readily than words. The amorphous, pre-speech level of thought can easily find its equivalent in the primary non-intellectual nature of sounds and images, lighting and colors, graphical arrangements and motion, dynamic changes in screen directions and rhythms. The intuitive primary response to such screen occurrences enables the depiction of experiences which could not be reached by a system of abstract signs i.e. words .....


In his remarkable study of the stream of consciousness in the modern novel, Robert Humphrey describes some of the difficulties, which we also share, in using the term 'stream of consciousness'. One reason for confusion comes from the association of the term with psychological notions. A psychologist, William James,10 originally coined the term in 1890, in an argument which had nothing to do with art. Humphrey writes:

James was formulating psychological theory and had discovered that "memories, thoughts and feelings exist outside the primary consciousness" and further, that they appear to one, not as a chain, but as a stream, a flow. 11

Since the nineteenth century, psychological terminology has been refined and redefined. More precise categories in describing the mental range have been created. What is relevant to our study is that - as Humphrey justly points out - the adaptation of the term to the novel is metaphorical. Unlike the parallel term in French 'monologue interieur'12, the English term does not designate a phenomenon which is rhetorical in nature. It calls a succession of words a 'stream'. Contributing to the vagueness is the fact that 'consciousness' is primarily a philosophical term, which is devoid of standard meaning,13 because various theories of identity define it differently. In the layman's usage, 'consciousness' indicates "the entire area of mental attention, from pre-consciousness on through various levels of the mind up to and including the highest one of rational communicable awareness."

Since it is in the layman's sense that the term has been used in literature, it is in this sense only that it has become an idiom and a cultural notion. This notion does not designate a real phenomenon in the human mind.14 It rather designates an artistic attempt to construct an illusion of what the artist considers to be mental functioning, and to represent it by means of his medium. In that sense, the term can serve well in its adaptation to film, where it is as metaphorical as in literature. For our purposes it is more appropriate than 'monologue interieur', precisely because it does not designate a rhetorical phenomenon.

A far more serious difficulty in the case of our adaptation is the traditional usage of the term. Writers and critics use it as variously and vaguely as 'romanticism', 'realism', 'symbolism', 'surrealism', 'modernism', 'post- modernism' etc. The term designates at least three different things. First, a narrative technique, attempting to construct the illusion of a mental flow. Second, a thematic concern with the characters' psyche. Third, a literary genre, whose most prominent representatives are James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and William Faulkner. Very often, the three usages are confused.15

The question is, why should the connotations of these usages and their confusion be imported into cinematic scholarship. A new term could be coined, which would have no previous cultural burden and would denote exclusively the cinematic representation of mental processes. By being specific to film, such coinage would contribute toward establishing an independent terminology for film scholarship. Terms like Expressionism, Surrealism, Neorealism, adapted in the past, emphasized the derivative nature of these movements in the cinema. They pointed to their umbilical ties in other arts. Since there is no such derivative nature in our case, and stream of consciousness is immanently growing in film, as a result of its developing expressive needs, a new term would be preferable.

On the other hand, the cinematic representation of mental processes shares with the literary medium its most essential goals and assumptions. They come from an awareness of the drama that takes place within the individual's consciousness. Striving to express it directly - not through its resultant external behavior - both media share the following assumptions: the coexistence of past, present and future in the character's mind and their manifestation in every moment of experience; the coexistence of the factual and the imaginary and their equal weight in the mind; the constant flow of ideas and their appearance according to the principle of free association; the frequent deviation from a linear order to a seemingly chaotic and incoherent succession, which eventually reveals private implications; the accumulation of private significance around enigmatic images and the creation of personal symbols.

By sharing goals and premises both media are engaged in an identical cultural endeavor. Using different terms would emphasize the difference in their tools of expression, rather than the unity of their main concerns. It would stress formalistic differences in means, rather than unity in essential substance.

Once the term has been adapted to cinema, the analogy with literature should be carried no further, and the term should be allowed to acquire its own significance based on the practice of representing mental processes in film.

'Stream of consciousness in film is the cinematic representation of mental processes
occurring in the minds of fictional characters simultaneously with the external action,
granting a penetration into their inner life.'

A discussion of the components in this definition will help determine its range of reference.

'Cinematic Representation' emphasizes the artistic nature of the endeavor. It is the construction of a fictional illusion, created by an artist through means of cinematic expression, rather than the depiction of mental processes factually occurring in the human mind.

'Mental Processes' is used to cover the widest possible range of activities of the mind, from dreams, through varying degrees of cognition to full awareness. It refers to all faculties of the mind: memories, fantasies, emotions, feelings, hallucinations, rational thoughts, impressions, sensations, etc., as well as any unnamed mental activity which the filmmaker may intuitively sense.

'Occurring in the Minds' indicates the dynamic nature of the mental process. Not only is its content represented on the screen, but also its actual flow in the character's consciousness. The selection of images and sounds and their succession represent ..... 




'La guerre est Finie'
'Hiroshima mon amour'


'Je t'aime, je t'aime'


'Last Year at Marienbad'


Enigmatic Images
Patterns of Repetition


Review at Film-Philosophy Presentation at Amazon  Author's Page  Cinematic Expression Website