Fifty years is a long time to wait for anything, let alone a prize from a festival located in a country who’s cinema you’ve helped define. But that’s where 90-year-old Alain Resnais finds himself in 2012, at the Cannes Film Festival, 53 years after his debut feature, Hiroshima mon amour, won a special prize at the fest. In a neat connection, Emmanuelle Riva, who I’m guessing takes home the Best Actress prize this year for AMOUR, starred in Resnais’ debut. His 18th (and potentially final) feature, the appropriately titled You Ain’t See Nothin’ Yet, marks his latest attempt at snatching the Palm d’Or, an award he’s arguably had coming to him for the entirety of his career, since his days unintentionally spearheading the nouvelle vague (Hiroshima, one of the movement’s key texts, was notoriously left out of Competition because of it’s subject matter). If he does win, however, it thankfully won’t only be a result of longevity and outcries of being “overdue”. The charming, slyly brave You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet finds Resnais’ aesthetic prowess in fine form, continuing a run of twilight-era films nearly as radical as what he was doing with the form in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Loosely based on the play Eurydice by Jean Anouilh, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet utilizes as it’s framing device a perfect film geek hook, gathering a handful of classic and contemporary French actors — including Mathieu Amalric, Michel Piccoli, Andrzej Seweryn, and Resnais regulars Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi, among others — to perform the play in the home of a deceased playwright, who’s staged the production many times over the years and who’s final troupe they watch and riff off in real time as they view the performance via television monitors. It’s a simple, stage-bound premise, one that Resnais has perfected over the years with, among others, his 1986 masterpiece, Mélo, and two straight-forward musicals, Same Old Song and Not on the Lips. You Ain’t Seen Nothin‘ Yet falls nicely into that same lineage, and while those unfamiliar with the play (or this style of Resnais film) could be left scratching their heads, Resnais‘ boldly theatrical presentation and playfully aestheticized staging alone provides ample rewards. If this is indeed Resnais’ swan song, he’s gone out with a pronounced verve most young filmmakers will never approach, and as a tribute to actors — and in particular, his actors — You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet strikes an appropriately gracious note.
It hasn’t quite grown to the stature or wielded the influence of the French New Wave, but the New German Cinema movement of the present day is quietly leaving its mark. Three of the movement’s key players, Dominik Graf, Christoph Hochhäusler, and Christian Petzold, came together last year to cinematically outline the ideological intent of the project with the three part Dreileben series, which found each director staging a separate but interrelated feature that together weaved a tale of crime, wounded friendship, and youthful passion against the backdrop of the Thuringian Forest. Each director has previous works that helped spawn the ideas behind what’s come to be known as the New Berlin movement, but as of now, only Petzold has begun making significant inroads to A-list auteur status (Jerichow became a small critical cause in 2008, while his Dreileben entry, Beats Being Dead, is widely considered the strongest of the trilogy). He’s not there yet, but with Barbara, his latest and possibly best film yet, Petzold has taken the aesthetic and narrative fundamentals of the New German enterprise and pared them down to it’s key elements.
In fact, Barbara — the film and, as it turns out, the character of the same name — is so unaffected and at times so elliptical in it’s disclosure that the film can feel like an intangible, unknowable enigma. Petzlod’s plot reveals itself in short, undramatic strokes, of the sort that necessitates a second viewing if one hopes to parse it’s intricacies. Centering on the stolid, stern-faced title character (Nina Hoss) who works as a doctor outside of Berlin in the German Democratic Republic circa 1980, Barbara takes the plight of it’s lead and spins it as allegory as much as realism. Barbara’s been excommunicated from the capital for attempting to leave the country for the West, where her boyfriend is in the process of planning her escape. She seemingly has little investment in anything beyond, curiously, her work, where her boss is fascinated by this conundrum of a woman who takes an increased interest in saving the future of a young drifter named Stella. On the page, the plot reads as rather vast. In execution, Petzold elides detail, excises action, and minimizes dialogue, relying more on his actors’ gestures and inflections to gather tension. As a result, Barbara consistently maneuvers it’s way just out of reach, standing tantalizingly outside of genre or drama, while Petzold continues to prove he has the skill and confidence to pull it all off.
Ken Loach’s record 11th entry into the Cannes Competition, The Angel’s Share, also screened this Monday evening, but a need for a proper meal and a little activity outside the Palais has probably left it as the one Competition film I won’t have the time to see (for those actually watching the schedule, I plan on catching Reality, Beyond the Hills, and The Hunt, on the final day of the fest, when all Competition titles screen once more). From what I gather, though, Loach once again has little business in the main strand of the fest, begging the question of just what spell the man has cast over the selection committee over the years. Tomorrow: Andrew Dominik’s long-awaited follow-up to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly, and Leo Carax’s even longer awaited return to feature filmmaking, Holy Motors.