Coming from a 90-year-old director, the title "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" may seem ironic, but I'd rather think of it as "optimistic" and "cheeky" — given that filmmaker Alain Resnais has already finished shooting his next feature, now in postproduction.
After becoming internationally known for his Holocaust documentary "Night and Fog," Resnais became (arguably) the most avant garde filmmaker of the French New Wave. His second nondocumentary, "Last Year at Marienbad," remains hugely influential and endlessly fascinating. His first eight features — through 1980's "Mon oncle d'Amerique" — seemed to be uniquely filmic; that is, they would lose all meaning in any other medium. Nonetheless, since 1984 most of his movies have been adapted from stage plays, and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" is no exception ... sort of.
Sort of, because it's adapted from two stage plays, both by French dramatist Jean Anouilh ("Waltz of the Toreadors"). The 1941 "Eurydice" is a reworking of the Orpheus story; the "Cher Antoine ou l'amour rate" is far more obscure (i.e., it appears not to exist in English, so I'm at a loss).
The film opens with several famous French actors (all playing themselves) receiving identical phone calls from Marcellin (Andrzej Seweryn), the manservant of Antoine d'Anthac (Denis Podalydes). He informs them that Antoine — a great playwright with whom they have worked — has recently died. They gather at his magnificent mountain chateau and are shown a farewell video, in which he asks them to appraise a rehearsal tape of a young theater company performing his "Eurydice." All of the assembled have appeared in at least one production over the years.
Very soon, members of this thespian "audience" begin to talk back to the screen, often delivering their own readings on top of the taped troupe's lines. Sometimes two Eurydices or Orpheuses in the audience speak in unison. Other times, one of the relatively young actors (presumably from a more recent revival) will find himself addressing an older actor playing his son. We see their visualizations or memories: in place of Antoine's house, the background will turn into stage sets, sometimes from multiple productions, intercut or even shown in split screen.
It quickly becomes difficult to be sure whether we're hearing lines from the play or expressions of the actors' real emotional interactions. In either case, everyone is reflecting on earlier times — even though the underlying Orpheus story is quite literally about the dangers of looking back.
"You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" presents a synthesis of Resnais's two periods: the reality/fantasy/memory confusions echo "Last Year at Marienbad" and "Providence"; the exquisite staging and lighting are more in keeping with stage adaptations like "Melo" and "Life Is a Bed of Roses."
Among the actors playing themselves are Michel Piccoli ("Contempt," "Topaz"), Mathieu Amalric ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Quantum of Solace"), Lambert Wilson ("Matrix Reloaded"), Pierre Arditi, and Sabine Azema, most of whom have been in numerous Resnais films. The performances appear as good as one would imagine, although the particular cultural context may leave some Americans (including me) at a loss for clear critical judgments. That is, it helps to be familiar with Resnais's work and/or the Anouilh plays. A boatload of background isn't necessary, but it sure would enrich the experience.
All of Resnais's craftsmanship remains intact: every shot is perfectly designed. But, if you literally ain't seen nothin' of Resnais yet, this may not be the best starting point. Resnais virgins would do well to look at "Providence," Resnais's most accessible film and shot in English, to boot.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun