THE GREAT PUP­PETEER

Vet­eran French film­maker Alain Res­nais con­tin­ues to con­found ex­pec­ta­tions, writes Stephen Fitz­patrick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

TO fully ap­pre­ci­ate the Alain Res­nais film You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, you could do worse than re­turn to the French di­rec­tor’s bril­liant 1959 de­but fea­ture, Hiroshima Mon Amour. Judged by many to be among the film greats, Hiroshima carved out a new space for cin­ema. Star­ring a youth­ful Em­manuelle Riva as an ac­tress vis­it­ing the bombed city to make a film about peace 14 years af­ter the war — and, while she is there, con­duct­ing a brief but tu­mul­tuous af­fair with a mar­ried Ja­panese ar­chi­tect — it set out key parts of the filmic vo­cab­u­lary Res­nais would re­turn to time and again in his long ca­reer.

This is not to sug­gest Res­nais, now 90, in­vented Hiroshima’s themes of loss, love, grief, mem­ory and for­get­ting, and the idea of frac­tured iden­tity; just as a mu­si­cal com­poser hardly in­vents sound all over again each time they de­vise a mas­ter­piece.

Rather, he put them to­gether in a way that made a new — and haunting — kind of vis­ual and nar­ra­tive sense, to cre­ate what fel­low di­rec­tor Eric Rohmer pro­posed at the time was likely to have been ‘‘ the most im­por­tant film since the war, the first mod­ern film of sound cin­ema’’.

Nor did Hiroshima’s nu­ances burst fully formed from Res­nais’s imag­i­na­tion; his pre­vi­ous film, a 1955 doc­u­men­tary about for­mer Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps called Night and Fog, ac­knowl­edged sim­i­lar ideas. (He al­ready had a string of doc­u­men­taries be­hind him, and Hiroshima ini­tially was to fol­low the same path un­til he de­cided the story he wanted to tell this time about the dev­as­ta­tion of war could only be a fic­tional one.)

But Hiroshima was a state­ment right from the heart of the French new wave of film­mak­ers, with a dream­like screen­play by nov­el­ist Mar­guerite Duras and the en­ergy of sur­re­al­ist art driv­ing it on.

Apart from a ca­sual nod to the 1942 clas­sic Casablanca, it might ex­ist in a world where no other film has been made — other than, enig­mat­i­cally, the one be­ing shot within it — and where Riva’s char­ac­ter and that of the ar­chi­tect, played by Eiji Okada, go through a process of al­most to­tal mem­ory break­down.

It was quickly fol­lowed by two more great works deal­ing with sim­i­lar themes: Last Year at Marien­bad (1961) and Muriel, or the Time of Re­turn (1963). Res­nais had es­tab­lished a dis­tinc­tive voice, one he has pur­sued ever since in dozens of films.

It is wor­thy of more than pass­ing note that Riva reap­peared on the screen last year — now, like Res­nais, at the tail end of her ca­reer — in Michael Haneke’s bril­liant Amour. Crit­ics have seized, nat­u­rally, on the re­turn of the amour/a mort French-lan­guage ho­mo­phone, and it is cer­tainly true that love and death suf­fuse both films — as they also do Res­nais’s lat­est, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.

In­deed, death is the start­ing point of this fun yet deeply pro­found pro­duc­tion. A hand­ful of ac­tors who have ap­peared in Res­nais films through the years — Lam­bert Wil­son, Anne Con­signy, Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi, Mathieu Amal­ric — as well as Res­nais ‘‘ new­com­ers’’ in­clud­ing Hip­polyte Gi­rar­dot and Michel Robin, all play­ing them­selves, each re­ceive a phone call say­ing that An­toine d’An­thac, a (fic­tional) play­wright in whose works they have all per­formed, has died.

They are to go to his es­tate and eval­u­ate a filmed pro­duc­tion of his play Eury­dice by a young theatre com­pany to judge its suit­abil­ity for be­ing mounted. All of them have acted pre­vi­ously in the play for d’An­thac. Res­nais’s film then pro­ceeds to be a fairly faith­ful ren­di­tion of two sep­a­rate but com­bined works by the French play­wright Jean Anouilh: his 1941 piece Eury­dice, telling the clas­si­cal Or­phic le­gend of doomed lovers, and 1969’s Dear An­toine; or, the Love that Failed. What’s more, the ver­sion of Anouilh’s 1930s-set Eury­dice they are watch­ing in Res­nais’s film is a de­cid­edly avant-garde one staged by French di­rec­tor Bruno Po­da­ly­des, filmed in­de­pen­dently of Res­nais and set in a large ware­house — ex­cept, as it un­folds, each of Res­nais’s ac­tors be­gins repris­ing var­i­ous parts of their own ren­di­tions of the play’s pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions, si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­part­ing from and in­ter­act­ing with Po­da­ly­des’s.

For the viewer, pulling all this to­gether re­quires a great deal of of lit­er­acy in the lan­guage of film; in fact, not only does it de­mand an au­di­ence con­ver­sant in that

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