Life and Nothing More
French dramatist and playwright Jean Anouilh once said, “Life is very nice, but it lacks form. It is the aim of art to give it some.” This is, of course, a noble ambition one would hope most artists strive for. And while “form” in and of itself is an ambiguous notion, Anouilh’s concern dovetails nicely with the work of countryman and master filmmaker Alain Resnais, who seems to have been in spiritual accord with a similar creative conceit for the last half-century or so. Resnais remains one of the few artists utilizing his chosen medium as a means of harmonizing various intersecting art forms—theater, musicals, literature—on a single plane of intercommunication where each refracts yet ultimately reinforces the others. His latest film, the spry, fantastical Anouilh adaptation You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, represents further reconciliation on the part of Resnais, again proving his singular ability to harness the illusory nature of life through the sensory experience of the theater.
Two Anouilh plays provide the framing device of and the base text and for the film: Dear Antoine; or, The Love that Failed—a gathering of stage actors at the remote mansion of a beloved playwright under the pretense of his passing—is transposed intact, while the classic Eurydice forms the remainder of a multilevel narrative, in which generations of actors reenact the play in inspirational fits and starts, collapsing time and memories into a single hallucinogenic present. At first blush, the fictional playwright, Antoine d’Anthac (Denis Podalydès), is most easily read as the personification of Anouilh—after all, it is d’Anthac’s play the actors are inspired to recreate. From another, more symbolic angle, however, it is Resnais himself, speaking through the apparition-like d’Anthac that has spurred this ensemble toward creative rejuvenation.
Now 90, Resnais, who’s still consistently working (not to mention playfully experimenting), has recently taken to a more overt process of self-reflexivity, with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet and his last feature, 2009’s surrealistic Wild Grass, functioning as tributes to theater and cinema, respectively, as much as they do to his stable of actors and their long record of collaborations. As such, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet proves especially fascinating for both its trapdoor narrative logistics and meta correspondences (Resnais’s wife and frequent collaborator, Sabine Azéma, even worked at one time with Anouilh on a production of Eurydice, while many of the film’s other actors have participated in stagings of the play). The summoned cast is a roll-call of both Resnais regulars and French acting royalty, with Michel Piccoli, Anne Consigny, Pierre Arditi, Lambert Wilson, and Mathieu Almaric, among others, joining Azéma to ostensibly play themselves in a high-concept reunion.
After an evocative prologue wherein each actor is identified by name as he or she is informed via phone call of d’Anthac’s death and thus invited to a wake in his honor, the film jumps to its central location. Here, Resnais reintroduces the actors in a series of identically static, flamboyantly angled shots of each taking shelter from a raging storm in the confines of a curiously vacant chateau foyer. The film’s theatrical staging is thereby established straightaway. As in a mid-fifties Hollywood melodrama, colors and dramatic lighting pop against the rain and thunder of the outside world. As the group settles down in the living room, a prerecorded speech from d’Anthac informs the actors of his request for his most trusted collaborators to evaluate rehearsal footage of the latest production of his play, which forms another spoke in Resnais’s fantasy/reality continuum, and is performed by an actual amateur theater troupe and directed Bruno Podalydès (perhaps best known to American audiences for his contribution to the 2006 omnibus, Paris, je t’aime). As the footage plays out before them on a large television, the actors are inspired to recite familiar lines of dialogue. Eventually they engage in impromptu recreations of their characters, as Resnais transforms and merges various planes of reality via a series of computer-generated and hand-painted backdrops, taking the group from the sparse confines of the residential to the familiar comforts of a railway café to, eventually, a geographically shifting cosmic expanse reminiscent of the opening, pastel-brushed title sequence.
As always, Resnais utilizes his stage-bound conceptualization not as modest (or even reverent) aesthetic device, but as a narrative resource through which to organize carefully choreographed verbal waltzes, taking shape and pushing the narrative through infinite variations on a single text. Orpheus and Eurydice are played by multiple pairs of actors: Azéma and Arditi our elder doomed loves; Consigny and Wilson the younger romantics—the four, in essence, create a dialogue between past and present (and, in the case of the amateur duo, the future), further blurring the line between generations, as well as prompting inquiries regarding interpretation and intellectual property. At one point Resnais goes so far as to split the screen in two, mirroring characters in a single frame. This contrasts the different technical approaches each actor takes but also emphasizes that together they arrive at the same destination—which is, of course, appointed by d’Anthac by way of Anouilh. Resnais is constructing a slipstream of the imagination via everyday cinematic tools. The result is theater by proxy, a cinema au courant.
“I don’t imitate reality. If I imitate something, it’s the imaginary,” Resnais was quoted as saying recently, and this approach was quickly evidenced as he began the shift from nonfiction to narrative cinema towards the end of the 1950s. A predilection for the surreal and hyper-stylized was on view as early as Last Year at Marienbad, and as he’s moved through the decades—from the intuitive complexity of Providence to the subversive melodrama of Mélo (his new film’s most intriguing analogue) to the musical theater dioramas of Same Old Song and Not on the Lips—Resnais has grown ever more comfortable operating outside the confines of verisimilitude. But just as in many of those films, the artifice of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (it looks as if the entirety of the film was shot on sound stages) is bred of an emotional honesty that lays dormant in every aspect of our reality, the full capacity of which is often times best facilitated via creative illusion. Resnais is at once a formalist who adheres to the strictures of the stage and a surrealist influenced by the reach of our imaginations. Borne of the internalized passions of both waking life and the unconscious, Resnais’s cinema operates at once outside of and in relation to the absolute. Even a more narratively linear work such as Coeurs (whose more metaphorically forthright American title is Private Fears in Public Places) unfolds like a highly tactile dream; in translating the intrinsic into the cinematic, Resnais approaches the subconscious and the concrete on equal terms, locating a hyperaware middle ground that is nonetheless authentic.
Appropriately enough, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet concludes with a rug pull, one final directorial flourish from d’Anthac (and Resnais—nearly each device in the film is mirrored by a similar action on the part of its real life counterpart) before he finally cedes to an afterlife prematurely glimpsed in hopes of artistic sanctification—no matter his or any beloved artist’s fate, the work is what will surely live on. What little of this man’s day-to-day life we glean through conversation is in the end, as Anouilh suggests, unremarkable and without definition. His art has come to define his legacy. It has given his life form, just as Resnais’s art has fortified his own. And thus each individual—the fictional d’Anthac, Anouilh, Resnais, the entire company of actors—has helped give shape to the audience’s lives, peripherally or not. Resnais, perhaps recognizing at this stage of his life that everyone must eventually pass their respective torch, is now employing his art toward different ends. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, then, is both ideological will and curatorial testament, seasoned admonition and self-styled tribute. And for Resnais, its function feels almost utilitarian, suggesting that this may indeed be just the start of a dazzling new chapter in a career that is consistently recalibrating. [RS]