The most prominent member of the French New Wave’s Left Bank filmmakers, the 90-year-old Alain Resnais has never really slowed down, but “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” is hardly the poetic crowdpleaser of his last outing, 2009’s “Wild Grass.” While the new movie lacks the same cohesion, it leaves plenty of room for its dynamic ensemble cast to act circles around the material while Resnais directs circles around them. It’s little more than a stylistically intriguing exercise, but Resnais’ works out better than most.
The key trick of “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” is that Resnais combines two movies into one: Performers reenact a play while it unfolds on a large monitor in front of them with a much younger cast; eventually, they become absorbed by it.
The movie finds a group of actors, identified by their real names, receiving the same call about the death of a famed playwright for whom they had all performed. Summoned to his home by the late man’s butler, the actors arrive one at a time under curious circumstances seemingly lifted out of an Agatha Christie novel. The group includes several Resnais fixtures and more: Sabine Azéma, Mathieu Almaric, Michel Picoli, Anne Consigny, Anny Deperey, Lambert Wilson and Hippolyte Giradot.
Seated in front of a screen, they find themselves confronted by a message from the deceased playwright Antoine d’Anthac (Denis Podalydès) as he explains his intentions: Each of the actors appeared in his acclaimed play “Eurypides” — a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus myth — which has now been adapted by a young theater company that sent Antoine a recording of their performance. As the recorded “Eurypides” plays, the older actors slowly begin to participate in their production.
At this point, the gimmick reveals itself as both trite and rich with potential: Both Azéma and Consigny once played the title character, a freewheeling woman in an acting group drawn into a passionate love affair with Orphee, alternately played by Arditi and Wilson. And so multiple actors begin to speak the same dialogue from their seats, then stand up and engage with each other, and finally transition into entirely new sets while the new production fades to a marginal role. Artfully edited to accentuate the redundant dialogue, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” develops a rhythmic echo effect that lasts most of the movie as Resnais destroys the fourth wall and builds it up again several times over.
Several facts merge with fiction here: Resnais culls from two plays by Jean Anouilh, the aforementioned 1941 production “Eurypides” and “Dear Antoine: Or, the Love That Failed,” the thinly veiled autobiographical story that provides the framework for the gathering of the older performers. But it’s also very clearly a personal endeavor for Resnais, a filmmaker older than the movie’s oldest stars, clearly driven to churn out complex, layered cinema more than 50 years after “Last Year at Marienbad.”
Of course, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” suffers from comparisons to that masterpiece, but while it has fewer mysterious pathways and dreamlike logic, it spreads any number of amusing visual techniques over the course of its two hours. On several occasions, a split screen reveals both Orphees and Eurypideses reciting the same lines, an effect also achieved through cleverly arranged mise-en-scene that situates one actor in the foreground superimposed over a different scene. Ultimately, though, the film’s allure isn’t the ongoing juxtapositions but rather the cast’s ability to inject the material with vitality. This reaches particular significance in the later scenes, when “Eurypides” takes on a fairy-tale quality as the myth surfaces in Eurydice’s death and subsequent resurrection. Warmly lit and throwing every iota of passion into their roles, the quartet of actors embodying Eurypides and Orphee dominate these moments in lovely close-ups.
But then the movie comes crashing back to earth for a prolonged epilogue in the “real” world, a reminder that Resnais has not so much made a great movie as arranged a few strong pieces with a shaky framing device. The cumulative effect is occasionally dizzying but transparent, a frantic attempt to cram themes into cinematic conceit.
It’s quite the marathon for Resnais to prove his continuing abilities even when the statement is screamingly obvious — reaching its apex when Frank Sinatro croons “It Was a Very Good Year” over the credits. By that point, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” could be retitled “Still Got It!
Criticwire grade: B