You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet & A Lady in Paris

June 15, 2013
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Jean Anouillh (1910-87) was a prolific and successful dramatist in the years after the Second World War, the evolution of whose work reads like a condensed history of modern French literature. He begins as a realist; makes his reputation with plays wrtten in a poetic, neo-classical style; before flirting with absurdism and a self-conscious form of theatre about theatre.

Anouilh has been associated with both the ‘return to order’ and with existentialism, but he doesn’t fit neatly into any category. Despite this constant willingness to experiment and remake himself, by the 1960s his work had begun to fall out of fashion. Watching Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, which stitches together two plays by Anouilh, it’s easy to see what went wrong.

The two plays in question are Eurydice (1941) and Cher Antoine, or the Love That Failed (1969). The first adapts classical Greek mythology to a modern French setting, with Eurydice reconfigured as a small-time actress and Orpheus a violinist. The second is a play-within-a-play, in which Anouilh spoofs himself as the unsuccessful playwright, Antoine d’Anthac. A version on YouTube concludes with the theme tune of that perennial French favourite, Le Benny Hill Show!

In some ways Resnais and Anouihl are a natural fit. Like the dramatist, Resnais has enjoyed a protean career in his chosen field. He came to prominence with Night and Fog (1955), a short film about the Holocaust that has lost none of its bleak power. His reputation was consolidated by a masterful first feature, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and the arthouse oddity, Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

No-one watching his early films would have suspected that Resnais would go on to abandon both politics and capital-A art in favour of light comedy, musicals and pop culture, including three movies based on plays by British writer, Alan Ayckbourn. Resnais’s films of the past two decades come across as an unbelievable mish-mash, although there are critics who discern a masterly design in the mix of styles. The unkind view would be that these films veer irritatingly between extremes of banality and artiness. The comedy translates poorly outside of France.

At the age of 91, Resnais’s latest film feels like a rounding-up of his long career. This has led many to believe You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet represents a farewell to film-making, but apparently the director is aleady at work on another feature.

One of the consistent aspects of the late Resnais is that he has continued to work with the same actors who form a virtual ensemble within his oeuvre. These actors include Pierre Arditi, Lambert Wilson, Sabine Azéma (who is married to Resnais), and a host of other big names in the French-speaking world. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet brings together a who’s who of French cinema, given the unusual assignment of playing themselves.

The movie begins with each actor receiving a phone call, invting them to the villa of Antoine d’Anthac, a celebrated playwright who has just died. They gather in his mansion in a scene reminiscent of Rene Clair’s film adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None (1945), but on this occasion nobody gets bumped off.

Ushered into a screening room by a suave butler, the guests are asked to watch an adaptation of Antoine’s play, Eurydice, by a young, experimental company. As the screening proceeds, the actors, led by the venerable Michel Piccoli, begin to recite the lines of the drama in which they have all performed.

For the rest of the movie the assembled actors swap lines with the screen version of the play. To make matters more complicated, Sabine Azéma and Anne Consigny alternate in the role of Eurydice, while Pierre Arditi and Lambert Wilson share the role of Orpheus.

The film unfolds like a manual in stage-craft, as we see the contrasting ways in whch different actors interpret the same role. Some intone their lines, others imbue them with a passionate intensity. Resnais uses quick cuts, repetitions, startling juxtapositions, and every other device at his disposal to animate this impromptu piece of drama. It’s a virtuoso display from a veteran director imbued with an obvious love of the theatre and a respect for his actors.

While directors such as Baz Luhrmann give actors no chance whatsoever, Resnais allows his cast ample scope to fashion a role as they see fit. Perhaps the most convincing is Mathieu Amalric, who plays Monsieur Henri with a forcefulness that almost allows one to forget the stilted nature of Anouihl’s lines.

For this is the problem: the acting may be superb, and Resnais’s direction always inventive, but the extreme artificiality of this scenario never allows the viewer to become absorbed in the drama.

The multiple layers, the sudden stops and starts, conspire to keep us at a distance from characters who are neither themselves nor their stage personas. The way the actors are introduced at the beginning of the film is almost sycophantic, while the rapport between them and the decased playwright is grossly sentimentalised. A persistent air of self-satisfaction hovers over a performance which is as alienating for the audience as a play by Bertolt Brecht.

Anouihl’s archly poetic writing has the same brittleness one finds in Jean Cocteau’s mythical dramas. It is a style that may have sounded avant-garde in 1941, but today it feels horribly dated – like a time capsule from an age when actors could mouth a string of would-be profundities about love, life and death, and audiences would lap them up.

Perhaps we live in a more cynical era, or have lost our ear for such cadences, but there is a strange, creeping nostalgia about this film. It could be argued that at the age of 91, Resnais has earned the right to indulge himself, but one can only feel uncomfortable about any movie whose primary goal is to impress rather than entertain.

Ilmar Raag’s A Lady in Paris is a more modest proposition than Resnais’s late flourish, but it also invokes our nostalgic admiration for a renowned actor. In this case, it is the 85-year-old Jeanne Moreau, who plays Frida, a lonely, grumpy old Estonian woman, living out her last days in Paris. Orson Welles famously called Moreau “the greatest actress in the world”. This is hyperbole, but one only need think of Moreau’s performances in Louis Malle’s films to accept that anything she does is worth watching.

The original title of this movie, Une Estonienne à Paris, may have been itended as a wry echo of Vincente Minnelli’s bubblegum musical, An American in Paris (1951), but the gag would only have registered with film buffs.

The story begins in a gloomy Tallinn, with a middle-aged woman named Anne (Laine Mägi) who has to cope with a drunken husband and an invalid mother. Following a divorce and the mother’s death she is offered a post in Paris, as a carer for an elderly Estonian expatriate.

Anne is met at the airport by Stéphane (Patrick Pineau), who takes her to meet Frida, who turns out to be a monster. Saddened by age and infirmity, feeling alienated from everyone, Frida lashes out at Anne’s attempts to help her. She has a vicious tongue and a talent for finding a victim’s weak spot.

Like Anne, we begin by assuming that Stéphane is Frida’s son, but he is actually a former lover who has remained true to his romance with an exotic older woman. Although he now treats Frida with the tact of a doting son, she behaves like a spoiled child. His job allows him little time for visits, but he is the only person Frida wants to see.

Anne becomes the third part of a triangular relationship, caught between Frida’s rages and Patrick’s entreaties that she stick with the job. Part of the difficulty is her unfamiliarity with Paris. She has spent her life in Estonia, and her lack of sophistication is a constant embarrassment. She is pale and plain, but could do more with her appearance. Her clothes are ordinary and her shopping skills inadequate. When Frida accuses her of being an Estonian peasant, she feels pained because she knows it to be true.

The Mills & Boon solution to Anne’s problems would be a total makeover whereby she becomes suddenly glamorous. In her new state she would subdue and befriend Frida, while bewitching Patrick. There are times when it seems Raag is going down this path but he never allows the story to degenerate into a melodrama. The changes that take place in each character are slight yet significant. Anne remains a relatively colourless figure, even though we assume she has a trace of steel in her personality. Frida is partially humanised, but retains her airs and graces.

Even in old age Moreau has a commanding presence, while the 50-year-old Laine Mägi is comparatively nondescript. This may be a necessary part of the story, but one occasionally wishes for a little less passivity on behalf of the carer. The film is restrained to the point of being tentative. It comes across as a study or a sketch, rather than a fully resolved drama. Perhaps Paris has an inhibiting effect on Estonians, whether it be Anne or the director himself.

 

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, France/Germany, rated PG, 115 mins

A Lady in Paris, France/Belgium/Estonia, rated M, 91 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 15, 2013