Quand ils eurent passé le port,
les fantômes virrent à leur recontre.
Once they had crossed the bridge,
the ghosts came to meet them.
God knows what it is, but there’s something about the Orpheus and Eurydice story that speaks to me. A guy dares hell and death to bring his dead love back to the world of the living, with one condition: he has to take it on faith that she’s there, he can’t look at her once before they see the light of day together or back she goes, she’ll be dead forever. And of course he looks. Personally, I will leave it to my ex-girlfriends to point out that I am fascinated by the story of a man who dares death for love, only to screw it up at the last minute by doing the one thing he’s been told not to do. Creatively, I will point out that I've written three plays and one long story on this theme. Which, artistically, means that I am the perfect target audience for Alain Resnais’ Eurydice movie, Vous N'avez Encore Rien Vu (You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet).
Combining two Anouilh plays (Eurydice and Cher Antoine, ou l'amour rate), the movie stars a who’s who of French actors, all of whom are introduced as themselves in the opening sequence, during which they are informed of the death of a director they know, and asked to come to his chateau for a special memorial service. The service turns out to be a videotape of the director praising their youthful work in a pair of productions of his play about Eurydice, and asking them to pass judgment on a young troupe’s bare bones version of the piece, which plays as a film within the film.
Slowly, the actors watching this film begin to echo the lines, speaking over the characters. Their random seating arrangement becomes purposeful—the two women who’ve played Eurydice are suddenly sitting next to each other (Anne Consigny, from The Returned and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly; and Sabine Azema, who looks like Diane Keaton’s ginger sister), talking back to the film and then the actress who played their mother, and then pairing off with an Orpheus (Consigny with Lambert Wilson and Azema with Pierre Arditi) until, seamlessly, all the older living actors are telling the story along with the film, and the room changes around them to become the story’s setting.
And because this story, this tale of youthful amour fou, is being told by older actors seemingly far removed in years from adolescent passions, it’s incredibly poignant—it’s hopeful and hopeless and beautiful and sad at the same time. I watch it and it feels to me like late Shakespeare, where death gives way to resurrection and wrongs give way to forgiveness and reconciliation. And at the same time I get the sense that these are not actors caught up in a story, but a story which is using everything and everyone it can get its hands on to get itself told.
The acting is excellent all around. The Azema/Arditi couple get more scenes than Consigny/Wilson, including the long, single-take, “I’ve just rescued you from death but I can’t look at you” scene, which (because it’s all one take and performed to perfection) plays like a brilliant piece of theatre. Of the other actors, Mathieu Almaric (the bad guy in Quantum of Solace, Consigny’s brother in A Christmas Tale, and the co-star of the Polanski film of Venus In Fur) plays M. Henri, the Death character, with his usual dark panache. And now and then, when he shows up, the film fractures into split screens or a four-panel grid, so that he ends up playing opposite both Orpheuses at once.
The only problem I have with this movie is the ending. In the last seven minutes, there is death, resurrection, and death, in a sequence which happens so quickly that it’s like getting blindsided by a bike messenger. I’m not familiar with Cher Antoine, so I don’t know if this mimics the end of that particular play; but even if it does, and even though I can see the thematic point of it—this is what real death is like, as opposed to death in literature and plays; real death leaves you with the shock of loss—it still struck me as a misstep. Which, again, is the point, I think. I trust Resnais to know what he was doing. So what I’m forced to say here is that, by feeling disappointed and let down by the last five minutes of the movie, I’m feeling exactly what Resnais intended me to feel, like this is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays as well as one of his romances.
The film played Cannes in 2012, opened at the Quad in New York last June, disappeared after a week, was revived for a week in August by Anthology Film Archives, and is now available on DVD and Netflix. I recommend it highly. Just remember that because it speaks to something very particular in me, my judgment is completely skewed in its favor.
Which is, sadly and hilariously, another ex-girlfriend analogy. ;-)