In 2007 I had the great privilege of doing a telephone interview with Alain Resnais. It was a very genial conversation that alighted ona variety of topics, one of which, no surprise, was his still-contentious 1961 collaboration with the late writer/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year At Marienbad. The movie still tends to be viewed by some through critic Pauline Kael's rather stubbornly dense reading of it—the gist of it being that it's one of the pictures that inspired her mot about "come dressed as the sick soul of Europe" costume parties—so I discussed it with Resnais with an emphasis on its more formally playful aspects, which include the appearance of a cardboard cutout of Alfred HItchcock and a pastiche of the Hollywood classic Gilda. He was not unreceptive to my perspective, but also gently cautioned against the notion of characterizing the whole thing as some kind of meta romp. As his interpreter put it, "Yes, there are some very funny jokes in Marienbad. But [...Resnais] hopes it doesn't take away from the tragedy."
And so. Resnais' latest picture, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, opens with some good jokes, beginning with its title, which heralds back to a different technological turning point in the history of film. The design of the title sequence, which does not but might as well incorporate the image of a flying unicorn, evokes a particular faux-grandiose Euro-cheesiness that's also quite amusing. Then there's the conceit of the movie itself. A flatbed-truck-load of great French actors, from Amalric to Wilson and with Arditi, Azema, Consigny, Girardot, and Piccoli and many others in between, are seen being summoned by phone to the chateau of a dear friend, a playwright named Antoine d'Anthac. Antoine's gone and died, and he wanted these friends to attend the reading of his will and testament. And so this amazing cast hies to an ornate CGI-rendered mountain retreat, where they are greeted by an unusually cheery Antoine via posthumous video. Turns out he wants to go over old times, particularly his play Eurydice, which various members of this cast, we learn, portrayed in various productions over the years. There's another theater company working up a version, Antoine tells the renowned thespians, and he wants their feedback on their version of the play. Which then begins on the big-screen display in Antoine's home theater. And the cast assembled for the reading of Antoine's will begins to interact with what's on screen, creating a mashup, if you will, wherein most of the entirety of Eurydice, a 20th-century gloss on the Orpheus myth, plays out for the viewer—that's you, and/or me.
If you're somewhat familiar with 20th-century European drama, and/or have paid attention to the movie's opening credits, you'll comprehend that this Eurydice is a real thing—it's a play by Jean Anouilh that predated Jean Cocteau's cinematic gloss on the Orpheus myth by several years. The two have little in common, as it happens, aside from the ancient-to-modern transposition. The actors-called-to-a-playwright's-will-reading conceit is ALSO adopted from an Anouilh play: a later, and altogether more obscure work entitled Dear Antoine, or, Failed Love. So there's another set of mashup parentheses bracketing the opposition of the Resnais rep company and the lesser-known actors in the fictional theatrical company that they're running competing versions of Eurydice with.
All this sounds rather remarkably impenetrably knotty and maybe impossibly French, and there's a sense in which cultural specificity seems kind of crucial to "getting" what's going on here. (Because I'm a horrible person, I was highly amused to read a writeup by a VERY know-somethingish whippersnapper in which he cited Antoine D'Anthac as a real playwright, and Jean Anouilh as a fictional one. It's like you've never seen Waltz of the Toreadors or Becket or something!) However. Once the conceit is successfully realized and the Eurydice action moves forward while toggling in different modes, the movie's exploration of the art of acting and the fungible nature of what we call "tragedy" takes on a remarkable immediacy that's rendered more than slightly phantasmagorical by the 90-year-old Resnais' delight in the play of digital space. Most, if not all, of the setting inhabited by the actors transporting themselves (and the audience) in D'Anthac's lair are digital simulations, from great halls that look like video-game foyers to ratty pension bedrooms wherein various iterations of Orpheus and Eurydice enact their passion and domestic disputes.
And while the viewer is taking in all of the various filters through which what is finally a very old and simple-as-Death story is being processed—and just to think, we ain't seen nothin' yet!—that story, its elemental themes of passion and mortality, comes through in a very direct way, via the performances and the way Resnais' camera views them. The formal innovations and sense of play aren't distractions from the emotion, rather, Resnais suggests, it is only through the rigorous exercise of the imagination that art is able to communicate anything even suggesting the Real. There'll be more to say when the picture gets a proper release and the rest of you are able to see it; I'm happy to report that Kino Lorber was not at all intimidated by its French-ness and will be releasing the film early next year.