You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
dir: Alain Resnais (France, 2012)
Screening yesterday as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable European Union Film Festival, and now playing elsewhere around the country in limited release, is Alain Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. I was, unfortunately, not able to include it in my festival preview because screeners were not available at the time, but the latest from the forever formally innovative Resnais is one the best of the seven EU Film Fest movies I have seen and will undoubtedly rank high on my year-end list of the best films of 2013. While the content of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet — a group of actors gather to watch the “video will” of a famous playwright — make it seem like an appropriate swan song for the 90-year-old New Wave master, Resnais rebuffed this notion at the press conference held for the film’s Cannes premiere: “This film is unlike any other,” he said. “If I’d thought of this film as a final statement, I’d never have had the courage or energy to do it.” Indeed, Resnais has fortunately already embarked on another film project titled Aimer, boire et chanter, an adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s play Life of Riley. Following 2009’s superb (and truly wild) Wild Grass, the boldly stylized You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet gives Resnais’ admirers ample reasons to believe that, when it comes to the director’s future projects, perhaps we really have not seen anything yet.
One of the chief pleasures of Resnais’ work, especially in more recent decades, is his exploration of the links between cinema, theater and life, a subject that arguably receives a more thorough working out here than in any of his previous films. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is, first and foremost, a movie about acting, and Resnais has fittingly assembled a dream ensemble cast that features many of the finest French actors of the past half-century, including Michel Piccoli, Sabine Azema, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Anny Duperey and Pierre Arditi. The premise is that these actors, all playing themselves, have appeared in various performances of the play Eurydice by the recently deceased (and fictional) playwright, Antoine d’Anthac, whose death has brought them together at the film’s beginning. D’Anthac’s “video will” involves showing this assorted gathering a recently videotaped performance of Eurydice by “la Compagnie de la Colombe,” a new theater company, in the hopes that the veteran actors will be able to help determine if the new company should be granted permission to put on the play. While watching this performance, the veteran actors are so overcome with emotion that they inevitably begin re-enacting the play themselves. The remainder of the film involves Resnais deftly intercutting between the two performances as well as scenes of the veteran actors interacting with each other in “real life.” The ambiguity about where life ends and theater begins — and the role of cinema in documenting this ambiguity — is treated by Resnais with characteristic playfulness and captured with characteristic formal mastery (e.g., rigorous widescreen compositions, perfectly measured long takes and purposefully fake-looking CGI). Resnais has also eschewed the astonishingly fluid crane shots of Wild Grass for a more locked-down feel that shows how much he believes that form should follow function.
One of the most fascinating and provocative aspects of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is the fact that the video production of Eurydice viewed by the veteran actors — and us, the viewers behind those viewers — was neither cast nor directed by Alain Resnais himself but rather by filmmaker Bruno Podalydès, who was commissioned by Resnais specifically for this purpose (and whose brother, Denis, turns up in a small role as d’Anthac). Resnais has spoken of the challenge of integrating his own ideas with Podalydès’ independently made footage (which was shot in a single warehouse-like location with a very un-Resnais handheld camera) as being one of the things that most attracted him to the project. This kind of self-imposed challenge can be seen as the latest in a long line of similar formal challenges that link Resnais to his master Alfred Hitchcock (whose image famously made a “cameo” in Last Year at Marienbad via a cardboard cutout in 1961); both Hitchcock and Resnais seem to view the creation of cinema as a process of posing and then solving a series of problems — though for Hitchcock this process tended to be more technical in nature (e.g., how to construct a film entirely from 10-minute long-takes and then disguise the cuts, how to shoot in extremely confined spaces, etc.), whereas for Resnais it tends to be more intellectual and theoretical.
Comparing the films of Hitchcock and Resnais is instructive: the manner in which Hitchcock wedded his problems to an uncanny commercial sense, and the way that he was able to successfully navigate a personal vision in Hollywood by utilizing big budgets and stars, has guaranteed that his best-known films are among the most beloved of all time. Resnais has remained just as true to his own artistic temperament, which includes roots in the Surrealist movement, but this has unfortunately meant that his movies are treated as frightfully esoteric by American critics when they have received U.S. distribution at all — and thus have only ever reached the kind of American viewers who frequent the arthouse ghetto. But just as Hitchcock’s most entertaining films contain veins of moral seriousness (as well as profound observations about human psychology) that are not always readily apparent on the surface, so too are Resnais’ best films, including this one, alive with the kind of visceral pleasures that seem inherent to the cinema and that make them more accessible than they are generally given credit for. In addition to offering the pleasures of seeing a great ensemble cast really letting it fly, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet also features an intoxicating score by composer Mark Strong, best known for writing the theme to The X-Files television show (one of many American T.V. shows for which Resnais has professed his admiration).
Also of note is the extent to which You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet seems like a quintessentially French movie by a director whose previous work (whether due to the use of locations like the German chateaux in Last Year at Marienbad or collaborations with international writers like Ayckbourn, David Mercer and Jorge Semprún) has marked him more as what might be termed a “global artist.” The film is loosely based on two plays by French writer Jean Anouilh, Eurydice and Cher Antoine ou l’Amour raté, the first of which Resnais apparently saw upon its initial theatrical run during World War II. It seems appropriate then that this film, although taking place entirely in the present, is steeped in the distinctly early-1940s atmosphere of the French cinematic movement known as Poetic Realism, most obviously seen in Jacques Saulnier’s wonderfully ornate sets (especially an immaculately designed train station). In addition to Poetic Realism, the spectacle of watching a succession of Gallic actors riff on the characters of Eurydice and Orpheus may also put lovers of classic French cinema in the mind of other movies influenced by the Orpheus myth (which seems to have a particular resonance within French culture), including Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy and the Brazil-shot Black Orpheus by French director Marcel Camus.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is also, crucially, a movie about memory. Even if it isn’t explicitly discussed in the dialogue, it is the characters’ overwhelming memories of originally appearing in d’Anthac’s play that cause them to re-inhabit the roles. They do this in spite of the fact that many of them are now “too old” for their parts, which lends the entire affair a deeply felt sense of poignance. The way Resnais uses his characters’ memories as a catalyst for blurring the lines between real life and art, actor and character, and past and present, is ultimately what makes You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet a worthy addition to the director’s formidable canon (alongside such universally acknowledged masterpieces as Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Muriel, as well as his more undervalued recent films), and reminds us of the old adage about how great artists always recreate the same work over and over again, just in refreshingly different ways. In an interview to promote Wild Grass, Resnais spoke of his loyalty to a Surrealist ethos that feels even more appropriate when the quote is applied to his latest film: “I hope that I always remain faithful to André Breton who refused to suppose that imaginary life was not a part of real life.” Through his heroic insistence on the importance of the imaginary within the real, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is supremely the work of an artist who remains forever young.
You can watch the trailer for You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet on YouTube here: