You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

9 April

Oldest recording of a voice, 1860

On this day in 1860, Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made what is the oldest recording of a human voice still in existence. The recording was made on a machine called a phonautograph which Scott had invented and patented in 1857. It worked by emulating the human ear – sound travelled down a funnel, hit a membrane and was transferred to a stylus (pig bristle) which transmitted the vibrations onto smoke blackened paper or glass, the two-dimensional results being used to study amplitude and waveforms. No one at the time the recording was made had any thought of making a playback machine; the recording medium was too fragile to permit such a thing. And it took until the late 1870s for anyone to attempt to make a more durable phonoautogram which could withstand the rigours of reproduction. By which point Edison had invented the phonograph, which consigned the phonautograph to history. It was only in 2008, by scanning the original phonautograms and playing them back through a computer, that the original recordings could be heard, and it is now possible to hear a man, presumed to be Scott, singing Au clair de la lune very slowly but remarkably clearly.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

Recording is at the heart of Alain Resnais’s rather arch drama, the sort of thing that has lovers of this sort of thing hunkering down with a bag of cerebral popcorn for the evening. If playful metadramas aren’t your thing, then this is probably the worst sort of film in the world. Its conceit, and it is full of them, is that a slew of famous French actors – Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Michel Piccoli, Anne Consigny among them – are invited to gather at the home of a wealthy man who has just died. They comply, all assembling, beautifully dressed, for the reading of the will, which is delivered by the dead man himself, as a film he made before he passed on. He makes a bizarre request. He wants them to watch a performance of Jean Anouilh’s Euridyce, which they have all appeared in over the years, and decide whether the amateur outfit performing it is worthy of support. And here’s where the film becomes truly exasperating or delightful, according to taste. As the amateur troupe, on film, go through the motions, the seated actors start picking up and re-enacting lines from the play. Michel Piccoli is the first to “break out” – a good choice; everyone loves Piccoli. So, to recap, we have Piccoli playing a version of himself, in turn playing a role in the drama he’s watching on the screen, which itself is a play all about actors re-enacting a Greek myth. Resnais does take it a stage further later on, but let’s not go there.

What a strange and simple idea Resnais has hit on, and what reflections it throws up. For starters we get to see the actors’ simple love for what they do – the way the lights come on in their eyes as they’re invited to enter the drama; the way the various individuals’ interpretation of a role changes its meaning; how their age and looks change the meaning of, for example, a promise to be faithful. Mortality is key – Eurydice is about the attempt by Orpheus to recover his dead love from the underworld – and in the faces of the assembled actors we see time’s ravages, the approach of the Grim Reaper, no matter how artfully they’re dressed. There’s more depth to this simple film than that, and it seems strange that it’s Resnais, 90 years old when he directed it, who is interrogating the idea of role-playing, as a teenage game-playing thumb jockey might understand it, perhaps better than anyone has managed in cinema.

I’m not convinced the film entirely works, to be honest. It seems to devolve into declamatory Gallic verbiage in its second act, as things get really tricky in meta terms, wobbles a bit before settling down to being about the boomer generation – how do the “forever young” (Bob Dylan) generation cope with age? But as Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” sings us out, it’s undeniable that it’s better to have seen this than not seen it, and that Resnais is having fun with us as much as making any serious point. It’s like a very good night at the theatre in fact. Which is probably the point.

Why Watch?

  • The cream of French acting
  • One of the last film of Resnais, one of the kings of the nouvelle vague
  • Daring experimental film-making
  • Todd Solondz and Lars Von Trier wouldn’t be who they are without Resnais

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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