The Académie française has been waging its battle to protect France from Anglo Saxon idiom since 1635. Yes, that's 378 years of sighing hopelessly as their nation absorbs such atrocities as "email" and (Le) "Weekend". They can take a break, at least for Les Grandes Vacances, because director Alain Resnais provides a perfect showcase for the French language in his latest film, Vous n'avez encore rien vu (translated for Anglophone countries as You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet which makes it sound like a headliner in Vegas, but we digress).
Extreme close-ups of the lions of French theatre and film worlds open the movie. Each one is seen picking up their phone and pausing -- beautifully -- as they are told the same piece of bad news. One of their mutual friends, a playwright, has died. His final wishes were for them to gather in his house somewhere far from Paris in a suitably dramatic storm-bashed remote location. If this was an American movie, the opening would be a swift montage, just enough to set the scene, but this is a French film so we linger. Each actor gets to say their line and to respond, crushingly emotionally, to their grief. It is a glorious set-up for the theatrics that follow.
When they arrive -- one by one -- at the playwright's house -- we discover they are all Actors. To make things even more confusing, they are all playing themselves -- as the Actors they are in real life. Confused? You will be. But it's worth it if you just allow the music of the French language and the emotive urgency of the acting to unfold. And each actor is a match for the other. This is an ensemble piece, but all the pieces are equally accomplished.
Many of them have appeared in Resnais' earlier films as well as acted opposite each other, for other French directors. This group of actors is the nearest one can get to the crème de la crème of their profession. Mathieu Amalric, always manic and brilliant, was in Resnais' Wild Grass. Pierre Arditi and Lambert Wilson both appeared in Resnais' Private Fears in Public Places, as did Sabine Azéma (she was also in Wild Grass, as was Jean-Noël Brouté and Anne Consigny). You get the idea -- this group is beloved by both French cinemagoers and by Resnais, the director. The actors trust him, he understands their strengths and the audience can sit back knowing they are in the presence of genius.
Ironically the only two actors that American audiences will recognize instantly are Amalric and Wilson because both have crossed the line into Hollywood action movies. Wilson was in the latter two of the Matrix trilogy and Amalric played a ruthless Bond villain in Quantum of Solace. However, one gets the impression that neither transgression would have been mentioned during rehearsals for Resnais' latest film.
What's the plot? Well, this is complicated (as one might expect from a French film) and don't expect any real resolution (this is European cinema after all). If you were going to a dinner party -- in Paris -- you would need to know it's a (1940s) play (by Jean Anouilh) within a play (based on a classical myth) referencing another (Anouilh) play (from the 60s). Because that's the sort of thing they talk about in Paris on a Friday night.
All you really need to know is that the Actors (gathered at the playwright's house) are watching (on a home theatre screen) some other actors (much younger ones) doing a modern allegorical version of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. If your Virgil is rusty: Orpheus lost his wife Eurydice and went into the Underworld to get her but was told not to turn around until they emerged into the dawn. You guessed it -- he did turn around -- that's why it's an epic poem of tragic circumstances.
To make things even more involved and multi-layered -- the Actors (watching) echo the lines said on-screen. Resnais then allows the camera to roam lovingly over the faces of the Actors as they respond to each other and we enter a third space of memory. It sounds involved -- and it is -- but it's beautiful. The young actors on-screen, continue in their dress rehearsal. The Actors in the playwright's house, like Orpheus, cannot resist looking back, to see their former selves, to witness each other's performances, to fall in love with their fellow actors all over again.
The staging is spare and elegant, rich reds, amber lighting and simple sets. The actors move purposefully, hitting their marks, following the director's orders. There is no improvisation in a Resnais film. He is precise and focused. Just as he was in Last Year at Marienbad, in 1961, the movie that launched a thousand spreads in Paris Vogue.
In the end, the film is all about Love: finding love, rejecting lovers, loving the lost one, losing love and leaving this life to find perpetual love. The script builds into a furious and frenzied crescendo. The magnificent faces of the Actors soften, briefly, as they recall their younger selves and then fly into passionate rages against the dying light. It is an experience impossible to capture in anything but French. And that is the main reason why the Immortals (as they are known) of the Académie française must be grateful to Alain Resnais. This film makes no sense, in the end, but it is rendered sensually in high theatrics with the most erotic of French tones. One feels quite deliciously faint as the lights go up, with the distinct desire to stay out very late.