French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th St. between Madison & Park Aves.
Festival continues through October 12
After the audience has settled in at FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall for Cyril Teste’s multimedia adaptation of John Cassavetes’s 1977 film Opening Night, there appears to be confusion on the stage, as a man in headphones converses in French with an unseen tech crew, their words not translated on the supertitles screen. It’s a disorienting moment, especially if you don’t understand French, and a terrific introduction to one of the themes of the play, the pull between fact and fiction, fantasy and reality inherent in theater and cinema. The man in the headphones is the play-within-a-play’s director, Manny (Morgan Lloyd Sicard), who is helming a melodrama featuring famous actress Myrtle Gordon (five-time César winner Isabelle Adjani) and her stoic costar, Maurice (Frédéric Pierrot); in the original film, itself based on a play by John Cromwell, Gena Rowlands was Myrtle, her real-life husband, Cassavetes, was Maurice, and one of their closest friends, Ben Gazzara, was Manny, their personal relationships further blurring the lines of reality.
With opening night a day away, Myrtle is having trouble with her lines and her physical presence, particularly in a scene that involves Maurice slapping her. She’s becoming emotionally unhinged, having a nervous breakdown, spurred by the earlier accidental death of a seventeen-year-old fan seeking an autograph and Myrtle’s inability — or overt unwillingness — to relate to her character, who is all too much like her, as if she is unable to face her own fate. Throughout the play’s eighty-five minutes, there is an additional figure onstage, cameraman Nicolas Doremus, who follows the characters as they move about Ramy Fischler’s elegant living-room set, which features a couch, a table, knickknacks on shelves, a visible backstage area with Agnès b.’s costumes, and, at the very center, a large screen where Doremus’s footage streams live, offering viewers a different angle on what’s happening. At one point, Doremus zooms in close on Manny and Myrtle, who might be about to kiss, the cameraman completing a kind of love triangle between life and artifice; at another, Doremus films other characters behind stage sharing their concerns as Myrtle is alone on the couch, drinking away her pain. Everyone is dressed in dark colors, mostly black, signaling potential doom.
Teste (Patio, Nobody) based his script on Cassavetes’s screenplay more than the final film itself, although he did use the director’s longtime friend and cinematographer, Al Ruban, who shot Opening Night, as a consultant. Teste encourages improvisation and changes stage directions every night, ensuring that each performance is unique in a way a film can never be yet still capturing the essence of the movie. “While Cassavetes’s other great films are models of immediacy — gut-level attempts to devise a cinematic syntax that accounts for and responds to the quantum flux of moment-to-moment experience — the doubly framed and multiply mirrored Opening Night operates at a remove,” Dennis Lim notes in his Criterion essay, which is appropriately titled “The Play’s the Thing.” He continues, “The filmmaker’s habitual insistence on the inseparability of actor and character (and of art and life) reverberates here within the haunted corridors of a backstage melodrama.” Adjani (The Story of Adele H, Queen Margot) is ravishing in her New York theatrical debut, her regal stage demeanor working hand-in-hand with her total command of the screen; we get to see both facets of her immense talent at the same time, which is both a treat and disconcerting; non-French speakers will lose a little as they avert their eyes to the supertitles while also deciding whether to look at the activity onstage, backstage, or onscreen. Sicard is superb as the director, and Pierrot is hardy as the skeptical Maurice, but Doremus stands out by not standing out even as he is right in the middle of the action. Opening Night opens FIAF’s monthlong Crossing the Line Festival and is supplemented by “Magnetic Gaze: Isabelle Adjani on Screen,” consisting of ten of her films shown on Tuesdays through October 29.