Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet seems to make its high-concept setup clear the very moment it begins. After its cartoonish credits sweep through a thick bank of CG fog, we’re greeted by a catalog of the director’s regulars seen in cross-fades as they’re invited to a deceased friend’s will-reading ceremony—an event which brings together a veritable who’s who of classic French cinema for an evening of mourning and performance. Rounding up the usual suspects for a bit of dinner theater at a mansion tucked away in the Alpes-Maritimes mountains might seem to fit too snugly in the purview of an old man’s cinema, but Resnais, now 91 (!), still has the puckish sensibility of an artist a quarter his age. The title isn’t meant to be taken as ironic: This is the work of a director very much capable of surprise.
The reunion and commemoration of these familiar faces—among them Michel Piccoli, Lambert Wilson, Anne Consigny, Pierre Arditi, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Duperey, and Sabine Azéma, all (ostensibly) playing themselves—represents only one of the many layers in the deceptively simple You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, perhaps the richest of Resnais’s recent efforts. The group’s dearly departed mutual friend, a fictional playwright named Antoine d’Anthac (Denis Podalydes), has posthumously gathered everyone in a lounge-like screening room at his home in Peillon, where a Kubrickian caretaker presents a video welcome from the deceased and a recording of a young theater company rehearsing a new production of his adaptation of Eurydice.
The choice has a special significance for the members of this group, who have not been invited arbitrarily. Each of the party attendees, we learn, has performed in this play for d’Anthac over the years, several of them as the same character several decades on (he has even invited two sets of leads). As the show unfolds before them, their faces rapt, these legends of the French cinema find themselves plunged through a shared personal history and back into the world of the play, as if their youth were restored through the power of performance.
Suddenly it seems as though the line dividing one fiction from another—the elder actors playing themselves watching a play on one side, the younger actors recorded performing Eurydice safely on the other—has ruptured, and in through the tear rushes torrents of half-remembered dialogue from one realm of performance to the next. This heady confluence of realities and fictions, in which d’Anthac’s assembled mourners begin to mount their own impromptu Eurydice, creates echoes and reflections through the cinema and through French history that enrich both the film and its source text. Like Matías Piñeiro’s superb Viola and the Taviani brothers’ flawed but compelling Caesar Must Die, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet revitalizes the project of theatrical adaptation by making the act of line-reading and performance itself the subject of the film. The result both elucidates a classical text and, more significantly, contemporizes it for the modern cinema.