Resnais's Guide To "Love" And "Life" Review

I'm not interested in The Bible, I'm interested in death.

So, you think you're an art house movie buff? Good for you, buddy, because I don't know if I can handle it. My ambitions are entertainment with literacy with a wide definition for both. Alain Resnais is surely an opaque dividing line between my sort of dilettantism and the hard core, high art snob/hippie with Last Year at Marienbad (1961) being a classic example of unwatchable inner-rectal filmmaking to your mainstream audience. The Cohen Collection has put together two of his films, from the early 1980's, written by Jean Gruault, Life is a Bed of Roses (1983) and Love Unto Death (1984) one presumes because Criterion already has the rights to Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), and Night and Fog (1955). Still, given Resnais's stature in film history, he is criminally underrepresented in home video and these are odd enough to satisfy those to whom such oddity provides a sense of high culture.

These are not unwatchable films, however. They are certainly outside the mainstream. Love Unto Death is the darker of the pair. Simon (Pierre Arditi) is an archaeologist, combing through ancient garbage near his house in the south of France. When we first meet Simon, he is writhing in pain in front of his lover Elisabeth (Sabine Azéma) and dies. The doctor comes and pronounces him dead. But just when the doctor leaves, Simon walks down the stairs, as right as rain. But the early surprise is quickly replaced with pained obsession and fear. Their friends, two Christian ministers Judith (Fanny Ardant) and Jerome (André Dussollier) engage with them in discussions about faith, death, suicide, and love.

Intercut with these scenes are fragments of music with ash or snow falling slowly against a dark background. Without these, the film would be a relatively straight-forward existential scenario with conversations and thoroughly accessible. But after the fifth time the music breaks in, it becomes frustrating and after the twentieth, it almost becomes self-parody. If the performances weren't as simple and honest as they were, this would be a caricature of a French film, all pretense and heavy-handed philosophizing. But the performances are good enough and the angst resonant enough to make you wish for a lighter touch with the expressionism. The film has seven votes on IMDB, so that gives you a sense of how seen this is.

...The five gates to pleasure!

The back of the Blu-ray case calls Life is a Bed of Roses a "lighthearted" film invoking the styles of three classic French filmmakers. While some of the film is akin to a minor farce, the bulk of the film is not particularly jovial. There are three stories. One is a loose, imagined fairy tale with princes and evil kings and damsels told in the briefest of moments. Another is set in the interwar years with the Count Michel Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) putting his friends--including his former fiancé Livian (Fanny Ardant)--through an experiment to bring them (almost literally) reborn into a new happy harmony after the terrible destruction of World War I. The third story is set in the 80's where the castle is now a school and playing host to an education conference. Élisabeth (Sabine Azéma) is a naïve school teacher with some interesting ideas, Robert (Pierre Arditi) is a jaded teacher with loose vision of teaching through play, and Nora (Geraldine Chaplin) is an American academic who hopes to play matchmaker (and possibly get together with famed architect Guarani (Vittorio Gassman)).

Considering that's barely half of the cast list, you can probably feel the farcical nature of the film already. But that spirit lives only in the third story. In the 1920's story, the note is dark and somber with a man who has clearly lost his moral balance in the war, becoming a desperate utopian disgusted with reality. Throughout, there are a number of what one can only describe as "musical numbers" mostly in the style of opera and once in a rock beat. "Why?" One asks. "Why not?" The other replies. It's certainly not the biggest thing holding the film back. The apparent randomness of the stories in tone and substance are clearly the main trouble. Any connections or themes--if one does not accept mere repetition of the words "happiness" and "love" to constitute theme--are the creative work of the audience, not something that is clearly conveyed. I can imagine such a film existing--and perhaps if I was fluent in French, I would be able to fill in the gaps more easily--but this is not such a film.

Bonus features

A trailer for the rereleases of both films.

"Love Unto Death and Life" is on sale July 21, 2015 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Alain Resnais . Written by Jean Gruault. Starring Andre Dussollier, Fanny Ardant, Ruggero Raimondi, Sabine Azema .

Jason Ratigan • Staff Writer

A lawyer-turned-something-else with a strong appreciation for film and television.  He knows he can't read every great book ever written, but seeing every good movie ever made is absolutely doable.  Check out his other stuff on Wordpress.


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