Alain Resnais is no stranger to the absurd. For over fifty years, his films—beginning with “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” have asked questions through their oblique narratives about the way we think about story, performance, and cinema. But such a serious statement also obscures the pure delight it is to get lost in the filmmaker’s lush imagery and his pure sense of magic. Surrealism can spark at any moment, and never feels unnatural. And in “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!,” the filmmaker’s purported last film, he’s gone to new wild imaginations of delight, a true send off from one generation of cinematic legends to the next.
It is funny, then, that a film so full of warmth and energy might begin with a death. The opening images show the legends of French cinema receiving a phone call telling them their friend, the playwright Antoine d’Anthac (Denis Podalydès, playing one of two “fictional” characters in the film) has died and they must come to his villa. So enter Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Almaric, Lambert Wilson, Anne Consigny, Sabine Azéma, and Pierre Arditi, among others—eleven of the fifteen main actors having previously worked with Resnais in the past. D’Anthac’s butler Andrzej Seweryn gathers them to show them a video made by D’Anthac before his untimely death, in which he describes that a small theater company wants to perform a production of his play Eurydice (itself based on the Greek myth), which they have all performed in at various moments in their lives.
But d’Anthac’s Eurydice is actually the 1941 drama by Jean Anouilh, and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!” is actually a very loose adaptation of a second Anouilh play as well, his 1971 meta-drama “Dear Antoine, or the Love that Failed.” Resnais and Anouihl worked together on some 20-odd plays over the latter’s life, and many of the performers that appear in the film also acted in his productions. But knowing such important meta-text is not essential for appreciating the magic that follows.
The actors sit, watching the adaptation of Eurydice, which is stripped down, shot digitally in a warehouse, and given a brutal realism to the sets (these sequences, shot by Bruno Podalyde, were conceived and directed without any input by Resnais, at his request). But as they watch, soon Piccoli can’t help but repeat the lines he remembers saying as Orpheus’ father. And then Sabine Azéma and Anne Consigny can’t help but both speak the dialogue of the titular character. Soon enough, all the actors are interacting with each other, and imagining their own sets, and no longer watching but performing.
In Resnais’s previous feature, “Wild Grass,” the director presented a similar magical narrative where it seemed anything could happen (and it most certainly did). But the film also lacked a focus, a central plot around which to revolve its surrealistic attitude. “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!” grounds itself in the adaptation of the Anouilh play, which gives the central text an emotional core, but also allows the film’s magical qualities to erupt organically. Eurydice is very much a story of young, passionate, and very confused love, and yet the actors inhabiting their roles carry wisdom from many years of experience. When we see the digital, stripped-down version, we see a passion of sound and fury as the young actors try to act like adults. But as we watch our older performers play it, it has a nostalgic longing for adolescence.
Structurally, Resnais allows us to actually see three productions of the play: Azéma and Arditi play one version of Eurydice and Orpheus, while Consigny and Wislon play the second. And as the actors move off the couches and construct their own stages (within their own minds? By magic? Resnais never explains, and all the better for it), pieces simply fall into place as they should. At one point, Arditi must open a door, and as he turns around behind him, a door magically appears. And later in the film, while employing a split screen between his two Orpheuses, they both go to open a door, and from the center of the frame two Matthieu Almarics pop out.
While Resnais has claimed that the film shouldn’t be seen as some final commentary on cinema, it’s hard not to read this work as a conversation about the transition in cinema. It’s in many ways a dialogue between the digital performance and his own staging, yet Resnais is not attacking the new generation; he instead invites them to perform alongside his young actors (occasionally literally interacting with them). As the play stretches into its final act, the director does lose some of that magic, simply because he seems more interested in adapting the play himself. But his cinematic style, the over-lit quality of his frames and the way the space seems to reconfigure itself as required, still gives the film a charming feeling of enchantment.
As the play comes to an end, and Resnais gives us four different, somewhat twist-endings, it’s hard not to be a little lost in what the final statement of the film could be (perhaps the 90-year-old director simply can’t come to terms that he’ll never shoot another frame, and feels compelled to keep going). But during the end credits, as Frank Sinatra’s “A Very Good Year” comes up, it’s difficult not to read the film as Resnais’s collection of memories he has made throughout his long and legendary career. One of his early films, the harrowing documentary “Night and Fog,” was one of the first films to show the horrors of the Holocaust. And yet, Resnais was a humanist, and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!” is a testament to his positive outlook on not only the possibility of cinema, but the possibilities of life. You simply need to believe in the possibilities to enjoy. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2012 New York Film Festival.