BEIRUT: As Alain Resnais is in his 91st year, it is entirely possible that he is aware of Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
It is Randy Bachman, the frontman of this ’70s-era Canadian rock’n’roll band, that’s credited with the first use of the title “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” It’s the title Resnais adopted as the English name for his 2012 film “Vous N’avez Encore Rien Vu.”
It’s an incongruous pairing, all the more so once you realize that Resnais’ film is a contemporary contemplation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which is older than BTO and Resnais put together.
Resnais’ sumptuous, highly theatrical movie had its premiere at Cannes last spring and just enjoyed its Middle East debut at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. It was the opening gambit of “La mémoire et l’imaginaire,” a 10-day-long retrospective of the French master’s work.
After the credits unroll – accompanied by portentous music and reproductions of Hellenic-style depictions of scenes from Greek mythology – the story begins with a series of identical telephone calls. An anonymous man rings a succession of well-known French actors to inform them that their friend, playwright Antoine d’Anthac, has died.
As his dying wish, d’Anthac has requested that 14 of his friends gather at his palatial mansion in Peillon for the reading of his will. As they do, d’Anthac’s butler informs them in a piecemeal fashion that his employer committed suicide after his much younger lover left him.
All hands gather for the solemn occasion and find that d’Anthac has left them a sort of suicide video. He informs them that they’ve been summoned because all have, at one point in their lives, portrayed characters in his play “Eurydice.”
Recently, he continues, a young theater troupe, La Compagnie de la Colombe, approached him for permission to revive the play. Unable to assess the relevance of his play after so many years – and evidently on the brink of topping himself in any case – d’Anthac chose instead to ask his friends and former cast members to decide on his behalf.
For the balance of “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” the 14 actors preoccupy themselves with watching a film of La Compagnie de la Colombe’s Beckett-inflected rendering of d’Anthac’s play.
Resnais has said that this fictive adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth actually conflates two plays by Jean Anouilh – “Eurydice” (1941) and “Dear Antoine; or, The Love That Failed” (1969).
Anouilh’s piece is one of several of his works that take tales and themes from classical antiquity and recast them in contemporary settings. The original myth features a Thracian prince and demigod whose musicianship makes him irresistible to women, Orpheus, and the girl for whom he falls, Eurydice.
The rapture of their love is ravenous, and accentuated by the fact that, within a day of their coupling, Eurydice dies of a snakebite. The grief-stricken Orpheus travels through Hades to retrieve her, and uses his lyre to charm god of the underworld to let him return with his gal. Hades allows the lad’s wish, but only on the condition that Orpheus refrain from looking Eurydice in the face until they’re back up top.
As often happens with such tales, this story doesn’t end well for the young lovers.
Anouilh reimagined Orpheus as the violinist son of a train station restaurant manager. Eurydice is the daughter of the leading actress in a motley theater troupe, presently awaiting a train.
Like their antique forebears, the 20th-century couple has only a day to consummate their love. This gives Anouilh – speaking through his character M. Henri (Mathieu Amalric) – ample opportunity to ruminate on how brief love is all the more precious for its brevity. When they persist for too long, he reiterates on several occasions, love affairs lose their divine intensity, becoming lost in the mortal coil of numbness and infidelity.
The 14 guests who’ve gathered to hear the playwright’s will are actors who have played these roles before, so naturally they’re unable to simply watch. Rather, they take up the lines as their younger colleagues recite them on the screen. This gives Resnais’ location manager opportunity to provide additional striking interior locations for cinematographer Eric Gautier to shoot.
Since the deceased d’Anthac has carefully made sure his guest list includes a retirement-aged Orpheus and Eurydice (Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma) and a middle-aged Orpheus and Eurydice (Lambert Wilson and Anne Consigny), the playwright’s contemporary retooling of the Greek myth of youthful lovers is played out over three generations.
Resnais’ film thus sets out to perform the same task as d’Anthac’s putative will-reading: to determine whether his contemporary, if not exactly new, rendering of Orpheus and Eurydice has the permanence of the myth that inspired it. By the end of the film, the resilience of the story is confirmed, at least among Resnais’ cast.
The director celebrated his 90th birthday last June. He’s been making feature-length films since the 1940s and, as a partisan of the Nouvelle Vague, participated in one of the 20th-century’s most significant film movements.
As “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” demonstrates, Resnais is among the few filmmakers whose career arc has outstripped the movement that made his name. It’s to honor his remarkable professional and creative longevity that the French cultural mission in Lebanon is sponsoring “La mémoire et l’imaginaire,” which will see these works projected in 35mm.
This 12-film retrospective includes a wide sample of Resnais’ oeuvre. “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959) and “L’Année Dernière à Marienbad” (1961), his two best-known works, are matched with a pair of documentaries that are seldom screened hereabouts – “Les Statues Meurent Aussi” (1953), with Chris Marker, and “Nuit et Brouillard” (1956).
“Je t’aime, Je t’aime,” will be played-off alongside Michel Gondry’s 2004 feature “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which takes its departure from Resnais’ 1968 science fiction love story.
Complemented by a smattering of well-received works from the ’70s and ’80s, “La mémoire et l’imaginaire” promises to document something of Resnais’ investigation of passionate love made bland by the passage of time, or else cut short before the betrayal of age.
Then again, as Randy Bachman so eloquently put it, any love is good love.
“La mémoire et l’imaginaire,” an Alain Resnais Retrospective continues at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil until Jan. 30. For more information see www.metropoliscinema.net/2013/la-memoire-et-limaginaire.