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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: New Basics

Kino Lorber

Alain Resnais, now 91, presents what he calls his final film. A pleasure, of course, to see that Resnais, one of the leading figures of the French New Wave in the 1950s and 1960s, is on hand still to present a new work and to see that he is still a director of what must be called sophistication. Decades ago Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad provoked fervent controversy through their ingenuity but were generally seen as serious attempts by a gifted man to take films into other dimensions. Explorations of structure still hold him. 

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet brings its own surprises. Resnais has turned to a famous play, Eurydice, written by Jean Anouilh in 1941, and has asked Laurent Herbiet to help him fashion a framework for it that will serve as a kind of professional farewell for him. So we begin with a play that is already a modern version of the Orpheus-Eurydice legend and move through more revisions. The film opens with a series of calls to elderly famous French actors informing them that the playwright Antoine d’Anthac has died and that he wanted them to come to his house for the reading of his will and funeral service. (D’Anthac turns out to be a pseudonym for Anouilh, to facilitate the story.) They all arrive at this huge house—Lambert Wilson, Sabine Azéma, Michel Piccoli, and others—and are told that they are the first to see a large videoscope of a provincial theater’s rehearsal of Eurydice, a play they have all been in themselves and which Resnais has done with some of them.

This, then, is Resnais’s core idea, the interplay of a rehearsal of this famous play with actors who have been in it—combining a sentimental visit to the past with two planes of reality—the rehearsal that is going on and the memories of these older actors’ remembrance of it. We see moments of the play done by different actors, all those moments beautifully acted. We understand what we are seeing, but we are not as moved as we are meant to be because few of these actors are known to us, nor (probably) is the play. What affects us most is Resnais’s ingenious idea.

And that affect is magnified by a surprise ending. We are left at the last more with gratitude to Resnais and his career, than actually being as moved as we are meant to be by this film.

Kenneth Branagh has picked up another challenge. When he presented Henry V as the start of his real career, a film which he directed and starred in, whether he willed it or not, he was risking comparison with Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. The result was exciting. The two films could be compared as performances by two fine artists of a great work.

Now he challenges Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute. With a screenplay devised by himself and Stephen Fry, Branagh has greatly altered the original. When the first scene is a fairly frantic modern battle scene, there seems little point in detailing each moment that has been altered. It is sufficient to note that from a general hurry-up and modernization, fires and floods, this is not going to be quite the Mozart we know. The story as presented is not entirely lucid. It has a small touch of the Masonic base it once had. (I am not a Mason, but I could see that the story had some reference to a Masonic ritual. There is even a book on the subject.) In essence, this is the story of the ritual that a young man goes through in his search for love. Not so here. Less plain, less deep.

The music, one of the greatest opera scores, is sung well enough, though little of it is as overwhelming in this context as it usually is. Bergman used his film to say something about opera itself while increasing this opera’s very power.

(Kino Lorber)
Sabine Azéma as Eurydice and Pierre Arditi as Orphée

The most disturbing fact about this film is that it continues what is by now almost a tradition—the concept of production. Ever since the time of Vsevolod Meyerhold in the Soviet theater, it has come to seem almost imperative for the director of a classic or familiar work to have an original concept of directing it. By no means is it always harmful. Branagh himself did a musical version of Much Ado About Nothing that had some charm. His use of the mirror in Hamlet was acute. Still, it seems a bit depressing that every new production must have some drastic alteration when so many of the more or less traditional productions have been so lovely. Or else the new production seems repetitious. As if mere gimmickry made the difference.

The next is not a concept picture. It’s not, but it could be these days. I have memories of films on this subject that I love, so I’m glad it’s not striving to strike for new forms in it.

More Than Honey is a documentary about bee farming. When I was a schoolboy, they showed us two such documentaries—I don’t know why—and I was very keen about them. This new one lives up to them and goes considerably further than I was able then to go about them.

In recent years, bee-farming statistics have been frightening. For some yet undetermined reason bee-farming has been diminishing around the world as bees have been dying dreadfully, and now an Austrian film-maker, Markus Imhoof, also a bee-farmer, has made this picture—not as an attack on the danger but as a general illuminator. Bee farming has been around for 15,000 years, and a lot of notable minds—Einstein among them—have said that if bees were to disappear, human beings would disappear within four years. Imhoof makes bees more important than they have previously seemed.

Imhoof takes us to bee farms on two continents. First in Austria, he shows a huge Alpine crag, then a close-up of a tray jammed full of tiny bees. The astonishing thing is that as we watch the swarm crawling over one another, different bees for a second or two become individual, trying to get somewhere or other. Then we see them being handled by the farmers, who seem almost to know them, breaking them into groups, stripping them of their honey, arranging them for shipment, and so on.

Imhoof takes us also to the American West, where again on bee farms we see immense fields of flowers, pastures for the bees, and again further treatment of the bees that shows a respect for them as something more than mere property. I left with the feeling that I may have felt harbingers of when I was a boy. I am a member of a race that is kept in being by the support of flying insects who sip on flowers to live.