Virtual Refractions 2.0: Notes on Alain Resnais' "Vous n'avez encore rien vu"

In our age of reanimations, Alain Resnais shows us and folds us into resurrections, infinite recursions, and alternate ways of watching.
David Phelps

Resurrections: Orpheus' own; his myth as Jean Anouilh' play, Eurydice; Anouilh's play into Bruno Podalydès' video adaptation, continuously projected throughout Vous n'avez encore rien vu's screening room in a kind of mystic real-time subtending the latter's recursive chronologies; and this Podalydès adaptation into Resnais' own adaptation, or rather his characters' own, as they recite the lines of the Podalydès video they're watching, or rather the Anouilh play they've all performed, to relive old performances, or rather, as usual in Resnais, to relive the lives of characters that have never been lived in the first place. One actor's performance will in turn be resurrected by another's of the same. Either they ain't seen nothin' or they've seen it all.


Very academic, except that Vous, like all of Resnais' films, works opposite to academic illustrations by problematizing its "source" text only within the text's terms. It's that or rather that will enable a logical structure of the illogical, infinite recursions as actors swap and double parts: from death to life to death again; or rather, from screen to reality to screen; until these terms pertain less to the actor than the viewer as alternate ways of watching the undead space on-screen. But then it is the premise of the movie that even these terms are conflated: to be a viewer is to be a performer of sorts, a host body to scripted codes. So, as in late Jean Rouch, in which actors are also filmed rehearsing roles, two ideas of cinema:

  1. A rapprochement between the viewer and the screen into which one is projected. The viewer participates in this spatial/emotional mechanism only as an alternate avatar of the lead. When the actor is strong—emotive in that clingy, Method way—his performance not only draws the viewer into some empathetic relation with him but, for all its histrionics, the performance effaces itself altogether: the actor does his duty by calling on the viewer to take his place, to usurp the actor's words and body as one's own. Instead of Resnais' film illustrating Anouilh's play, it is Anouilh's play—not only the text of the film but its subject, the rallying point for a bunch of famous actors (playing themselves) to assemble Clue-like in a Disney castle and put on a show—that will illustrate the potential connections between these vessel-stars. Through it they are given the device to connect; the play supplements the actors. As usual in Resnais—again—the text is both itself the movie's central subject, the weird ghost of another time possessing actors' bodies in an eternal present, as well as a mere pretext for each actor's reactions in performing the lines.
  2. And so to watch this latter way, to see how the actors interpret the text, is to watch not the magic trick but its technical achievement. What's left is simply the material record of performances distinguished as much by their bathos as their differences from one to the next.


In our age of reanimations, Orpheus is mascot. By now, Resnais has lived long enough to see his virtual realities become ours: that collective memory MacGuffin at the missing center of his movies, the forgotten event that must be cyclically relived as nothing more than an unconscious recitation of a text, might play as much like the repressed trauma of the 20th century's ever-Freudian history as it can a prophecy for an age in which not only actions but reactions are puppeteered by the screens around us—movies, taxi TVs, Google’s personal results. As if the only forms of communication left were only permutations of the predetermined terms of media.

A collective hallucination of people who think they’re talking to each other but are only talking to a screen: it’s the duly-noted theme of Vous n'avez encore rien vu, as the backgrounds dissolve from the screening room into a train station, café, and hotel, while the characters remain seated in place, stuck in some cinematheque of their imagination, foreshortened by Ruizian compositions a plane apart from their own space. The three-dimensional spaces of the film remain like a two-dimensional screen, never penetrated; even the much more inhabited spaces of Podalydès' video are seen mediated by the screen of the movie theater within the movie. The old Resnais question of whether the characters' imaginations have conjured up these spaces, or whether the spaces were given to them by some absent authorial figure to precipitate their scenes, becomes no different than wondering whether a character comes up with his lines within a scene or has them written for him by a Hollywood scriptwriter. And, for that matter, whether a character is an autonomous human being in an extendible space and time or a psychological contract between a moviegoer and a flux of light on a wall.

But if the metaphor is cinema, the presentation is closer to certain video games: a stationary character in severe foreground posed against a background space that eddies around the screen in order to simulate the opposite, the motion of a character through a stable coordinate plane of linear time and continuous space. At least in Resnais it is clear that time is hardly linear and space hardly continuous. The split-screen alternations of single scenes replayed by different actors only seem to have recourse to a virtual model of pop-up videos on a screen: here, presence is not defined by whether or not the videos are live-feeds with some original source in an outside world, but by their relative simultaneity to one another. The screen is an eternal present.


Still what seems new here, for Resnais, is the teasing attribution of these magic tricks to a potential single figure—the playwright whose mock-death summons his old band of actors to his castle. But of course this single figure, like everything else in this movie, splits into two: not only alternating between dead and alive in the characters' resurrections of his body of work throughout the movie, but both a structural fiction and an all-too-real-life figure, Alain Resnais himself. Among other things, the movie serves as a kind of rehearsal for an elegy, enacted in various permutations not because of memory's regenerative warp and woof after the fact, but because of imagination's possibilities before anything has ever happened. Of course the point, often skirted by doctoral profundities on the role of memory in Resnais, is that in imagination these are, frighteningly, the same. What is left is simply a movie that seems to adapt itself from both sides of the screen. Notes for future regenerations beyond the grave.

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