Master filmmaker Alain Resnais, still elusive at 90

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The big-name cast of Resnaiss latest includes Michel Piccoli and Matthieu Amalric (both pictured).
  • The big-name cast of Resnais's latest includes Michel Piccoli and Matthieu Amalric (both pictured).
At first glance, the title of Alain Resnais's latest feature, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, seems like a self-effacing joke. Resnais is 90 years old and could retire—indeed it had been speculated last year that the film, which screens again tonight at the Siskel Center's European Union Film Festival, would be his last. But a quick search on IMDB reveals that Resnais is already working on another movie (his fourth adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play, currently titled Aimer, boire et chanter), so there goes that hypothesis.

Likewise it would be wholly out of character if Resnais were being immodest and heralding the rejuvenation of his career. This filmmaker has consistently gone out of his way to obscure his creative intentions—as Jonathan Rosenbaum liked to note in his essays about Resnais, the director has never taken a screenwriting credit despite working extensively on the scripts for all his films. (In his last two films, Wild Grass and You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, he's accepted writing credit under a pseudonym, Alex Reval.) Like the novels of his onetime collaborator Alain Robbe-Grillet, Resnais's films feel like elaborate constructions in which the author can hide. As for the film marking a new phase for Resnais, that doesn't seem quite right either; the movie continues in the stylistic vein of several previous films, most obviously Melo and Not on the Lips.

After seeing it once, I'm inclined to read the title as a thematic clue. The movie revisits two of Resnais's perennial subjects, the theater and death—and "You ain't seen nothin' yet" seems a fitting way to introduce either one. Applied to the former, it suggests old-fashioned showmanship; applied to the latter, it reminds us how little we know about the world beyond (or, indeed, if there even is one). Nothin' is characteristically creepy in the way Resnais combines these two interpretations of the phrase—he never lets us consider one independently of the other.

There's also something comforting about this. In my capsule review of the movie, I wrote that "Resnais shows how great art connects people to the infinite," which is another way of saying that it enables us to imagine life after death. As Nothin' develops, Resnais collapses three separate versions of playwright Jean Anouilh's Eurydice: one that's presented as a movie-within-the-movie and two that are acted out by the people watching that movie (the audience comprises the casts of separate, earlier productions of the play). The message, I think, is that the play will live on no matter who performs it. To perform Eurydice is to become part of a chain that's longer than your own lifespan.

Resnais could have used any theatrical text to make this point, so it's provocative that he selected this one. Anouilh's Eurydice so romanticizes death that certain passages practically sound like advertisements for suicide. (The fine actor Matthieu Amalric steals the show with his recitation of one of them.) Anouilh's fatalistic text and Resnais's warm direction don't cancel each other out, but their combination inspires feelings that are pretty hard to nail down on a single viewing. Of all the movies I've seen so far this year, Nothin' is the first I feel I need to see again.

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