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The confluence of theater, memory and real life for a group of actors in an explicitly artificial world sparks rarefied aesthetic pleasures, up to a point, in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. Its contracted, slangy English title specifically insisted upon by the director himself, this reflection on the past, love and death through the prism of layers of theatrical endeavor is both serious and frisky, engaging on a refined level but frustratingly limited in its complexity and depth. Alain Resnais’ latest will appeal most to devoted fans but doesn’t approach the delirious heights of his previous feature, Wild Grass, in 2009.
Resnais and screenwriters Laurent Herbiet and Alex Reval have used two works by the eminent late French playwright Jean Anouilh, Eurydice and Cher Antoine ou l’amour rate, to provide a frame through which to assess the enduring viability of the themes stemming from Greek mythology and well as their emotional meaning in the lives of multiple actors who have performed the drama of a love story, that of Eurydice and Orpheus, that bridges the worlds of life and death.
Contriving the setup required to assemble the diverse thespians together brings out Resnais’ customary playfulness, just as it recalls his long devotion to the theater and the form’s useful array of artifice. In a beguiling opening interlude, roughly a dozen actors receive identical phone calls informing them that their famous theater director, Antoine d’Anthac, has died and requesting that they journey to his country home for a reading of his will and funeral service.
As the actors — all playing themselves — arrive, they are welcomed by the deceased’s elegant manservant Marcellin (Andrzej Seweryn) onto what is self-evidently a set of a large room strewn with black sofas. They are assembled, explains Marcellin, to watch video footage of a provincial theater company’s proposed staging of d’Anthac’s play Eurydice (actually Anouilh’s) to decide whether it holds up and if the estate should grant permission for its performance.
This fanciful setup establishes the terms under which Resnais’s entire film must be watched and even among viewers of specialized and foreign films, quite a few won’t be keen to embrace this intellectual conceit involving literary time travel between French theater and Greek myth (the fact that Anouilh’s play was written in 1942, during the Nazi occupation of France, and had special meaning within that context is ignored).
The video, which Resnais engaged Bruno Podalydes to direct, features young actors performing in a bare warehouse and, altogether, amounts to roughly 28 minutes of material. But rather than an end in itself, it serves here as a springboard to stimulate the emotional memories of d’Anthac’s veteran actors, who are then seen playing their old roles once again, regardless of their sometimes vast age discrepancies with the characters.
For a while, the different pairings and performance styles holds the interest and even stimulates; revisiting one old production are Sabine Azema as Eurydice and Pierre Arditi as Orpheus, while another, regularly intercut, stars Anne Consigny and Lambert Wilson. Greatly enriching these impromptu flashbacks, or resummonings of dramas past, are Jacques Saulnier’s wonderful sets which, despite their color, deliberately evoke the poetic realism of French cinema in the 1930s and into the 1940s, especially in a beautifully rendered train station; in all respects, the film is technically immaculate. Further harkening back to that same period is Seweryn’s role as a detached impresario who orchestrates the proceedings.
Unfortunately, the film severely limits the richness of these reprised performances by providing no indications of the actors’ own relationships, now or decades before. The intense dialogues about love, lost and recaptured, could have achieved much greater resonance — be it sincere, ironic, painful, wistful or whatever — had the interpersonal histories of the actors been illuminated, with all their inevitable passions and rivalries. But Resnais is operating here on a more intellectual, game-playing level, constricting all responses to the brain and not the heart.
Furthermore, Resnais devotes a lion’s share of the final stretch to Azema (his wife) and Arditi, whereas, to be blunt, the beautiful Consigny and Wilson are much more enjoyable to watch. Azema provides Eurydice with a neurotic component that goes way over the top, drawing unneeded attention to the fact that this film is all talk, all the time.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is an amusing title for a film by an 89-year-old director, one who has already announced another project. At the same time, there is something both gleefully self-effacing and egotistical about centering a film on a puppet master-like director who, from the grave, summons his associates to do his bidding.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (In Competition)
Production: F Comme Film, StudioCanal, France 2 Cinema, Alamode Filmdistribution, Christmas in July
International sales: StudioCanal
Cast: Matheiu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azema, Jean-Noel Broute, Anne Consigny, Anny Duperey, Hippolyte Girardot, Gerard Lartigau, Michel Piccoli, Denis Podalydes, Michel Robin, Andrzej Seweryn, Jean-Chretien Sibertin-Blanc, Michel Vuillermoz, Lambert Wilson
Director: Alain Resnais
Screenwriters: Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval, based on the plays Eurydice and Cher Antoine ou l’amour rate by Jean Anouilh
Producer: Jean-Louis Livi
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Jacques Saulnier
Editor: Herve de Luze
Music: Mark Snow
“Eurydice” by the Compagnie de la Colombe directed by Bruno Podalydes
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