(Alain Resnais, France, 2013)
A magnificently odd film by the 90-year old Resnais. Clearly, a more thorough investigation of his work is in order (I've seen Marienbad and Hiroshima, but it's been many years, and I my initial verdict was ambivalence. The guy has undeniable brilliance, but I struggled with the reliance on theatrical artifice.)
Part paean to the actors and their art, part puckish experiment in cinema-theater dialectics, and part serious treatment of love, mortality, and various other verities, Resnais's most recent work, same as it ever was, defies categorization. As with Jia Zhangke, his use of digital-as-digital - embracing the medium in all of its flawed novelty - is transcendent. Much of the action takes place in front of digitally-painted backdrops, which highlights the artifice of the medium, while simultaneously providing a powerful, even unsettling immediacy to the action.
Resnais brazenly invests himself in a highly tenuous concept, and his actors - several of France's best - follow him without hesitation. It's a remarkably tender work, overflowing with affection for the people who appear onscreen. Somehow, what resonated most is the notion of acting as generosity; in scene after scene, the actors throw themselves into the performances, and we sense that Renais, also, is delighted in being able to offer them such an opportunity to practice their art.
For a film so fixated on death, both willed and unwilled, the overall effect is exhilarating, and I couldn't help but picture Resnais as working from a place of almost serene belief in his art, and in art in general. The notion of art as almost magical in its powers, transcending space and time, is brilliantly related. A 20th century play (two plays, actually) based upon a myth from antiquity, transmuted by cinema into a 21st-century experience, somehow manages to feel stunningly alive, relevant, and contemporary. It's an enactment of faith, not just in cinema but in art, to make sense of the senseless, to render time and history in an intimate, human scale. The play, itself an extension of the ancient world, will continue to be performed, not just through repertory theater but now through the pixellated movement of the digital image. The life that art gives, for those willing to give themselves to art - whether it is for a single performance, as an audience member, or as a professional, five nights a week (or forever, depending on the archive capabilities of digital) - is revealed as a sacred power.
There's a lot to unpack in this film, and it will certainly benefit from being revisited. Things get especially weird at the end, with the inclusion of a couple epilogues that feel abrupt, if deliberately so. What was Resnais after? He seems perfectly content to let such questions linger.