Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Once More unto the Breach: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (2012)

Sabine Azéma  and Pierre Arditi in Alain Resnais’s You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (2012).

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Vous n’avez encore rien vu, 2012), Alain Resnais’s penultimate film but in the form of what any other filmmaker would choose as a last film, is a stupendous achievement. Featuring a veritable Who’s Who of the French cinema playing themselves in a film (based on the premise of a play) about a play performed alongside the same play caught on film (which is adapted from an actual play), it manages the rare feat of evoking multiple levels of emotion and intellectual delight with a single conceit.

The premise, taken from Jean Anouilh’s Dear Antoine: or, the Love that Failed (Cher Antoine ou l’Amour raté) and doing something much more meaningful with it, is this: renowned playwright Antoine (Denis Podalydès) has died, and his last will and testament summons to his country chalet a group of stage actors, all veterans of his play Eurydice (which is actually another Anouilh play, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, translated in English as Point of Departure or Legend of Lovers). There, he asks them via filmed message to evaluate a filmed rehearsal of Eurydice performed by a young theater troupe and to decide whether they should be allowed to revive it.

They sit and watch, and then the magic happens. Slowly, the actors fall back into their old roles, reciting lines along with the film, and later standing up for full-blown CGI-enabled reenactments, imbuing the characters with the same emotions that animated their interpretations so many years ago. It is a wondrous joy when we embark on a new narrative journey, be it book, play, or film, and settle ourselves into a story world where people are uncapricious, events are delineated, and significant aspects of the environment are unmistakably highlighted. The joy is doubled if we’ve taken the journey before, and every character, event, and piece of scenery beckons to us like an old friend, glad to see us again. How immeasurably more joyful it must be, then, not only to see these old friends, but actually to reincarnate one of them, along with all the others, and find yourself suddenly back in that safe and familiar world. Though, as Roland Barthes reminds us, every reader helps to write the text through interpretation, the actor in a stage play has a much wider range of interpretations from which to craft the text, and the sense of authorship and ownership is that much more powerful. The actors here spontaneously re-inhabit their roles because they find there all that is lacking in their lives.

That alone would content the average director. But Resnais goes farther. Among the gathered actors are not one but two pairs of leads, played by the elderly Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma, and the middle-aged Lambert Wilson and Anne Consigny, respectively. (Along with the filmed play, that makes three pairs of Orpheus and Eurydice, for those counting at home.) Resnais is able to do ingenious and moving things with the combinatorial possibilities: staging and blocking two different couple dynamics to evoke different moods; cutting from one couple to another when the play calls for a mid-scene tonal transition; using split screens and mirrored blocking when a scene includes only one actor (Mathieu Almaric, who not only portrays but seemingly embodies M. Henri, the messenger of Death); and more. In one jaw-dropping scene, when the play calls for Orpheus to shoo away an older couple so that he and Eurydice can be alone, Resnais underscores the conflict by pitting the “live” Orpheus against the on-screen older couple; to make up for the size differential and the immovable presence of the silver screen, he bolsters Orpheus by having both actors approach the screen, one from either side, alternating lines until the couple leaves.

Lambert Wilson and Anne Consignyin You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (2012).

And there’s a third level, to do with the choice of plays itself. Dear Antoine revolves around the protagonist’s reflections on a life ill-led, carried out by means of a play about the post-death gathering of his ex-wives and friends at his winter mountain estate to hear his last will and testament. Eurydice, in Anouilh’s hands, meditates on the opposite end of life, a moment when all possibilities are opened up, even the possibility of everlasting happiness with the one you love, as well as relating Orpheus’s reaction when he finds out that it is just that a moment. (Side note: it’s therefore remarkably similar to Anouilh’s Antigone. Also, I don’t know where else to put this so I’ll put it here: the first act of Eurydice ends brilliantly, with the young couple, caught in a whirlwind of love and having cut all ties to their pasts, finally formally introducing themselves.) We readers, having already graduated high school, know that such a perfect meet-cute can’t end well, so most of the play is shrouded in poignant foreboding. In the film, this atmosphere is movingly conveyed by having the older couple perform most of the romantic scenes; Arditi and Azéma can’t help but bring with them the experience and faded dreams of their long and storied lives. In effect, Eurydice’s insistence on the purity of their love is subtly played as a knowing fantasy, while Orpheus’s ready acquiescences to his lover come across like a grandpa’s spoiling of his favorite granddaughter, giving her a happiness he knows won’t last, which is all the more precious for it. For their part, Lambert and Consigny mostly take on the more tragic turns, and their middle-aged beauty enhances the sense of fragility in their relationship their downfall seems imminent.

Resnais displays an immaculate instinct for when to use which actors, when to cut to the filmed play and how completely, when to use CGI and how much, and when to deploy what kind of soundtrack to elicit the emotions that on stage would emerge from variations in volume. It’s therefore so much more astounding that the filmed play, featuring the troupe La Compagnie de la Columbe playing themselves (Orpheus is Sylvain Dieuaide; Eurydice is Vimala Pons), was directed in its entirety by Bruno Podalydès completely independent of Resnais’s film. The performances of these young actors is, due to the film-within-a-film mediation, bled dry of any emotion deeper than youthful naivety, and Resnais cuts to them mostly for minor characters and mechanical plot points (but not always: the hotel waiter, Gabriel Dufay, is a case in point).

And yet, with all that said, it’s the ending that stays with me the most. At the end of the play, Orpheus kills himself to rejoin Eurydice. At the end of the film, Antoine is revealed to be alive, and he reunites with everyone. Cut to a twilit scene, with Antoine running through some woods; the camera precedes him to the end of the path, where a pond awaits him. We hear a splash. The following day’s Le Monde reports him dead. Cut to a cemetery, where Pons goes to visit his grave, but seeing the veteran actors returning from their own visit (with Orpheus and Eurydice two mixed couples), she hides to let them pass. External shot of a theater marquee, listing a Eurydice revival, obviously by La Compagnie. Voiceover: “Orpheus is with Eurydice at last” the final line of the play. Resnais was already past ninety at the time he made this movie; perhaps he was finally ready to see The Perfect Film.

– CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog reviewfilmreview.wordpress.com, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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