The Monday Intertitle: And Then the Phantoms

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As part of my research for the blogathon, I watched Alain Resnais’ most recent film (but not his last — he already has another on the way), VOUS N’AVEZ ENCORE RIEN VU aka YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET! — in which a group of actors (the creamy cream of the French acting establishment playing versions of themselves) gather in a secluded and stylised theatrical mansion to hear the last will and testament of a director who had worked with all of them in various productions of the Oresteia (this is based on a play by Anouilh). As the will is delivered by the dead man himself via a film, and the assemblage is then shown film of a new production of the play that unites them, which they then begin to interact with in various impossible ways, I was reminded of two wildly different films — THE CAT AND THE CANARY for the plot device and specifically the Radley Metzger ’70s version for its playful Pirandellian approach to the screen within the screen (at one point an aged retainer in Metzger’s flick dodders behind the screen only to appear, in perfect directional continuity, ON the screen in a younger incarnation. When this youthful image passes out of the edge of frame, the real-life older model takes his place, back in reality.) — and it’s nice if Resnais is referencing Metzger because Metzger was certainly influenced by MARIENBAD — and Olivier’s HENRY V, which seems to function as much as a commentary on the theatre-going experience as it does an adaptation of the play itself. For the first half hour or more we are amused but somewhat distracted by the fact that Resnais is showing a play with the roles played by a series of different actors, and in settings that vary from the actual screening room where the actors are gathered, other rooms nearby which MAY be part of the same building, and locations or CGI environments illustrating the places in the play.

But after a while this ceases to distract and despite all the apparent alienation devices, the story is quite involving. And indeed the emotional pull of the scenes is strangely increased, particularly when they’re performed by actors too old for the characters they play. Because we get not only the emotion of the scene but a kind of nostalgia (in a good, unsentimental sense) for the youth they once possessed and the feelings they must have originally brought to the roles. Or maybe it’s just that old actors are better than young actors.

Except that the character of Death is played by only one actor, Mathieu Amalric, and he’s not that old but he’s electrifying. His trenchcoat made me think of the figure of Fate in Carne and Prevert’s LES PORTES DE LA NUIT.

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But there’s another movie reference too, and it’s certainly intentional. As he’s setting up the plot, which he does in a bare-bones way, cheerfully acknowledging the artifice, Resnais uses a couple of intertitles, including this one (above). “When they passed through the gate, the phantoms came to meet them.”

Which is a paraphrase of one from NOSFERATU ~

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The translation of that we used to read was something like “And when Hutter crossed the bridge, the phantoms came forth to meet him.”

But the subtitles provided now that we can see the original German-language title card say something like “the uncanny faces came out” or the “spectral images came out” — but I’m guessing Resnais is familiar with the same translation as me.

You can read it at 18:12.

This talk of phantoms refers to vampires in the Murnau film but to memories and movie images in the Resnais. Which feeds into my growing suspicion that phantoms and memories and movie images are all different manifestations of the same, misunderstood phenomenon…

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8 Responses to “The Monday Intertitle: And Then the Phantoms”

  1. A beautiful assessment. Resnais in his nineties has more imagination, wit and mental energy than the whole of French, British and American mainstream cinema rolled into one.

  2. Indeed he does — even though he’s in far from the best physical shape. Lambert Wilson (who does a rather startling impression of the way Resnais moves his now oddly-twisted body to walk) says he’s the only person he’s ever worked with to apologize for not casting him in a movie. He just didn’t have a role for Lambert in the one he’s doing now (I believe shooting has just finished.) Lambert also says Resnais is OBSESSED with Bob Hope. Talks about him all the time.

  3. Wow! Well, Son of Paleface is quite Pirandellian…

  4. I coincidentally just saw the most recent restoration of Nosferatu. Must confess I found the restored intertitles rather wordy.

  5. It does seem like we’ve been watching a rather simplified draft all these years. I’m keen to watch it with an open mind to see if the added verbiage does anything positive.

  6. Hmmmm… Well, the new/old intertitles do harken back to the epistolary nature of the original novel.

  7. This one is weird because it’s set in some weird future tense — it sets up anticipation for the coachman/vampire’s appearance, while looking back from a time when Hutter has told the intertitlist all about this stuff. Again, novelistic — something the cinema has largely abandoned.

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