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