For Washington cinéphiles, the La Cinémathèque program, supported by La Maison Française at the Avalon Theater, offers many delights. The series features rare -- often singular -- screenings of recent French films, in the beautiful old Chevy Chase movie house that was saved and restored by community support. Last night, it was a screening of Vous n'avez encore rien vu, a film directed by Alain Resnais and released last year in France. The film had a limited release in the U.S. earlier this summer, but this was its first screening in Washington.
The legendary director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, now in his 90s, had made some noise about this being his last film. Word has since surfaced that another feature, Aimer, boire et chanter, featuring many of the same actors, is already in post-production. While this is not the sort of movie for a moviegoer who expects things to happen and in a logical order, it is a must-see for lovers of cinema, a grand work that sums up, in some ways, the veteran director's recent obsessions -- what is the nature of art, how do life and art intersect, what role does memory play in our experience of art -- and does so with whimsy and on a multitude of interpretative levels.
Resnais's screenplay, assisted by Laurent Herbiet (who also got second credit on Resnais's Wild Grass), weaves together two plays by Jean Anouilh, Eurydice (1941) and Cher Antoine, ou L'amour raté (1969). The latter play provides the narrative framework -- a celebrated playwright, Antoine d'Anthac, upon his death, calls together all of the actors to whom he entrusted his play over the years. The play in question is Anouilh's Eurydice, and d'Anthac (Anouilh) asks the veterans to critique a performance of the play by a young troupe that has asked his permission to stage it. Eurydice is a play about actors, which filters the Greek legend of Orpheus through the lives of a troupe of actors waiting at a train station. As the older actors watch a video of the younger ones, they inevitably recall their own performances, their internal memories expressed as fragmentary reenactments.
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The principal anxiety of Eurydice is about aging and how the initial fire of love deadens to a comfortable heat. This is played out as we see three generations of Eurydices and Orphées, four gathered in the room from previous productions and two on the video, overlapping as if the characters are shifting ages before our eyes. Like Abbas Kiarostami's Copie conforme, there are many layers of meaning in this film, even though not much happens except for conversation, and most of that conversation is actually Anouilh's highly structured dialogue. The characters in Eurydice are actors, and here they are being portrayed by the hall of heroes of French cinema and stage, although not many that many American viewers might recognize -- Sabine Azéma (Resnais's muse) and Pierre Arditi are the senior Orphée and Eurydice, followed by Anne Consigny and Lambert Wilson (Of Gods and Men) in middle age. Matthieu Amalric is charmingly sinister as the Death-like figure of M. Henri, and another great film seducer, Hippolyte Girardot, plays the slimy character of Dulac (now in his 50s, a long way from the cynical Gen X slacker who snapped his fingers at the Eiffel Tower in Un monde sans pitié). In the supporting parts there are many more, including Michel Piccoli, Michel Robin, Gérard Lartigau, Jean-Chrétien Sibertin-Blanc, Anny Duperey, and Michel Vuillermoz. They are, like us, seated in comfortable seats watching a movie -- those white boxes on the arms of the chairs are called ashtrays (only in France) -- but can we, like them, become a part of what we are watching? The film's conclusion reminds us that, because we too are mortal, we may have no choice.