Enter an art deco mansion. A caravan of France’s most beloved actors – past and present – enter one at a time. They gather together on pristine leather seats in front of a giant screen. On that screen, a beloved playwright with whom they all worked speaks to them beyond the grave, and declares eternal appreciation to his theater troupe. The butler then projects a video of one of the late playwright’s works performed by a young traveling company. The veteran actors are so moved by their recollections of collaboration that they begin reciting the lines and acting it out, with multiple performers playing the same role. Lines of reality blur, and actors enter spaces that may be part of the mansion or may be in their imagined space of the play, as we occasionally return to their bodies, remaining firmly seated on the leather chairs. About an hour in, any distinction between reality and fantasy in the life of theater seems not to matter.
This is the central premise of Alain Resnais’s newest film, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. At over 90 years old, the tireless innovator who brought us Night and Fog and Last Year at Marienbad proves once again fully capable of audaciously exploring uncharted terrain for narrative cinema. Beautiful, difficult, frustrating, and engrossing, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is an undeniable accomplishment of form and experimentation.
Resnais’s stock here proudly trots out some recognizable faces of the past and present French film scene, including The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Almaric, Contempt’s Michel Piccoli, Lambert Wilson, Anne Consigny, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma (Resnais’s wife and star of his previous film, Wild Grass), and several others. All the aforementioned cast members have enjoyed regular collaboration with Resnais during this late part of his career, and they essentially play themselves, or characters of themselves using their real names. Seeing this cast as Resnais’s “company,” it’s easy to read the role of the playwright as the role of Resnais himself: a man heading towards life’s finale, giving appreciation to his collaborators and their craft. (With the extensive real life/real character cast, it’s also tempting to call You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet the This is the End of French art cinema, but I’ll resist that temptation for now).
Resnais, however, has insisted that the film isn’t a moving-image goodbye. He stated at Cannes last year, “If I thought of this film as a final testament, I’d never have the energy to do it.” He’s already at work on his next project.
Instead, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is something of a love letter to playwright Jean Anouilh, as the film’s actors perform something of a combination of two of Anouilh’s plays: the Orpheus-myth-inverting Eurydice and a lesser known work, Dear Antoine: or, the Love That Failed (Laurent Herbiet and Resnais worked together on adapting these two plays). Anouilh’s name is never mentioned; a fictional playwright named Antoine d’Anthac serves as You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’s contemporary final-rites device.
There are at least two versions of the Eurydice hybrid play occurring at once: the one performed by the actors in the room invited to mourn, and the version sporadically referred to on the screen in front of them. The film/play within the film/play was made by actor/director Bruno Podalydès (who is probably best known in the US for helming the “Montmarte” chapter of Paris je t’aime). Thus, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet should not be approached as an “Alain Resnais film” in the auterist sense of such an accreditation, but as a collaboration between and combination of several artistic voices, from Resnais to Anouilh to Podalydès to the actors onscreen.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet asks a lot of its viewer, and there’s certainly much that’s potentially lost in translation. Any prior knowledge of Anouilh’s Eurydice, the French actors, Resnais’s filmography, and even Podalydès’s contribution certainly enriches the experience of watching You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. And I freely admit to wiki-ing the Orpheus myth after finishing the film. But this information isn’t required in order to appreciate what the film is doing.
What Resnais has accomplished here is a vision of film that works in concert with the unique attributes of the theater – cinema here, remarkably, executes the unlikely task of borrowing some of the medium specificity of live drama. How can the sense of emergent creative collaboration, the potential spontaneity of live performance, or the unique experience of covering the same material multiple times and achieving different results be made analogous in a recording and montage-based medium like cinema?
Resnais attempted this task in several ways. First, Resnais had Podalydès direct the separate sequence so that he and his cast could react to it uniquely, so that they could stage something that is of their own distinct voice but is also realized in the un-replicable context of another’s. Secondly, multiple actors play the same role while some actors play one character exclusively. Thus, we have Orpheus and Eurydice played by an older couple (Arditi and Azéma) and a middle-aged couple (Wilson and Consigny), who inflect the same characters and the same interactions with markedly different and particular resonances. Meanwhile, supporting characters like Amalric’s detective interact with both Arditi and Wilson’s Orpheus, thus variegating the dynamic further. The result is a rather brilliant, in the universe of Kaufman-esque puzzle of persona and character – we don’t know at any given moment whether we’re watching these actors perform the play or whether we’re watching the play itself, and Resnais (per usual) is far from interested in distinguishing those boundaries.
This is hardly a theatrical exercise caught on film – Resnais lends to theater certain possibilities that could only be realized in cinema. Not only is You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet an inventive collaboration between creative persons and artistic voices, but a conversation between the unique ingredients of ostensibly separate art forms.
The Upside: A truly unique and unconventional film that allows two forms of artistic expression and a multitude of creative personalities to speak to one another, with occasionally stunning results; gorgeously shot; features fine work by some of France’s best actors; proof that even in his 90s, Resnais is still one of the most challenging and playful of Europe’s narrative filmmakers
The Downside: The sometimes disorienting film expects a lot of its viewers, which includes both patience and an assumed knowledge of some of the film’s motivating elements, like Anouilh’s work; nothing that occurs after the play is completed (including a rather predictable and deflating twist) lend the film anything remotely interesting in comparison to what’s come before
On the Side: Resnais’s next film is also an adaptation of a play: Alan Ayckbourn’s Life of Riley, a story featuring six characters who discuss a man suffering from a terminal illness who never appears.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet opens in limited release today from Kino Lorber.