Set in a playwright’s sumptuous old mansion in a little village in central France. In the large drawing room, the butler welcomes some friends whom the playwright, now deceased, asked to be summoned for the reading of his will and who all responded to the request. These 13 actors previously performed in his plays, including one in particular who was considered outstanding in her time. But is she still?
World cinema is not without its mysteries (why has nobody noticed that Hong Sang-soo has been making the same movie for the past eight years? how come no one’s seen through Naomi Kawase yet?), but few are as baffling, or as frustrating, as this: why has French New Wave veteran Alain Resnais—along with Godard, probably the most innately cinematic filmmaker of that generation—devoted so much of his career to adaptations of precisely the kind of staid, proscenium-arch theatre that would seem his spiritual antithesis?
To watch Resnais’ early work, from early shorts like Le Chant du styrène and Tour la mémoire du monde (and, of course, the landmark Night and Fog), through to that astonishing first salvo of features, is to see someone simultaneously in command of and inspired by the specific properties of the medium. Innovative in terms of framing, mise-en-scene and editing, alert to both the narrative and plastic possibilities of sound- and production-design. Whatever you think of films like Hiroshima Mon Amour, or Muriel, it’s difficult to deny that their virtues or deficits are inextricably bound up with their form; they are—could only be—cinema.
Thereafter, however, he seemed to retreat. Flashes of the old genius would surface from time to time—Mon oncle d’Amerique (1980) remains one of the most provocative and intellectually rigorous of all his films, illustrating the theories of French neurobiologist Henri Laborit through a series of loosely-connected fictions; and Providence (1977), in English, with John Gielgud, from a script by David Mercer, offered a satisfyingly recursive take on the country-house drama. But too much of it was stagey—literally so, in the case of 1986’s Melo. A passion for theatre was hardly unknown among the new wave: it’s at the cornerstone of Jacques Rivette’s achievement. But Rivette drew inspiration from Racine and Aeschylus and Shakespeare—Renasis was a fan of Alan Ayckbourn. (Thus, his 1993 Ayckbourn diptych, Smoking/No Smoking, offered five hours of essentially undistinguished dinner theatre.)
The cinematic Resnais staged something of a comeback in 2009, when he premiered Wild Grass in competition at Cannes. Charting the improbable attraction between a moody, middle-aged dentist and a drifter (possibly with a criminal past), its narrative elisions and abrupt tonal shifts seemed surreal in the actual, André Breton sense of the word. Its technique was masterful, its mood playful and spry; at 87, he seemed fully engaged with the medium once more. Fittingly, the result saw him rewarded with a Special Achievement Award from the Cannes jury.
Then, three years later, he followed it up with this: another of his valentines to the stage and to the poor players who inhabit it. The source-material was a little more Tony than usual—two of Jean Anouilh’s plays are referenced—but in most other respects it is a disappointment: windy, self-indulgent, inert, pointless.
Playwright Antoine D'Anthac has died; the film opens with news of his death being relayed, by telephone, to a succession of his close friends—all leading French thespians (Michel Piccoli, Lambert Wilson, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, the inescapable Sabine Azéma), all playing themselves, or at least a version of themselves. (The music accompanying these messages is almost comically dramatic, alerting us at once the artificiality of the enterprise.) D'Anthac’s lawyer summons each of them to the playwright’s home—itself a cavernous theatrical set—where he explains the deceased’s last wish: that his assembled friends should all watch a video recording of a performance of 'his’ (actually, Anouilh’s) play Eurydice, as enacted by a younger group of actors, La Compagnie de la Colombe, who are seeking permission to mount a production of their own. (The play itself is set among the members of an amateur theatre troupe, adding yet another level of inter-textuality to proceedings.)
Turns out, this particular drama is dear to all their hearts; they have all acted in it, at various times over the years. Watching the performance, therefore, invites them to succumb to memory and nostalgia, two very different things. Before long, they begin reciting the lines along with the other actors, and then feeling the pull of those old emotions . . . until finally, each of them is pulled back into the role they once inhabited and, perhaps, the person they once were.
But—and this, presumably, is the point—the repetitions are in fact minutely differentiated (because you can no more perform the same role than step into the same river twice). Lines either lag behind or anticipate the 'delivered’ ones. Emphases shift. And gradually, the space they inhabit begins to change: out of the 'screening room’, new narrative spaces seem to emerge and multiply, as the older actors begin to perform and not just recite the play, finally seizing the text from the younger ones.
It’s incredibly dull stuff. For one thing, Anouilh’s play has not aged well; its 'elegant’ dialogues, today, seem even stiffer than Lambert Wilson’s hair. For another, one has to wonder at the point of all this self-reflexivity, except as an end unto itself. Many of Resnais’ films have been about time and memory, the past inhabiting the present, and vice versa; in this sense, at least, its basic themes are congruent with his work. But if Wild Grass, as the late Roger Ebert commented, was 'a young man’s film made with a lifetime of experience’, this one is its opposite: an old man’s daydream, thick with funereal solemnity. Watching it, one cannot quite escape the suspicion that Resnais—now in his early '90s—is projecting some scenario anticipation of his own, impending demise, like a man who’d like nothing better than to observe (and, ideally, direct) the grief that accompanies his passing.
Fittingly, the French have a term for it: the mise-en-abyme—used first to describe the famous hallway shot from Citizen Kane. It’s what happens when you place two mirrors opposite each other, a series of infinitely receding reflections. That, in a phrase, is what this film feels like. And while the craft is there—some of Resnais’ staging is inspired—the endeavour smacks of pointless game-playing: a meditation on the line dividing performance from 'lived’ experience, rather than a developed narrative.
Early reports suggest that the director’s latest film, titled Aimer, boire et chanter, might be destined for a Cannes berth this year. Given, however, that is based on yet another Ayckbourn play—Life of Riley, about the gathering of various friends of a man diagnosed with terminal cancer—I can’t exactly work up much enthusiasm. Thankfully, though, we’ll always have Marienbad.
It’s incredibly dull stuff