Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Alain Resnais, fabled director of Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad, isn't as mysterious as he might seem. Fifty years later he's still working, and probably still trying to escape his reputation for impenetrable intellectual puzzle pictures.
Kino has assembled Alain Resnais: A Decade in Film, a handsome selection of the director's 1980s work. The four pictures see him working on a medium-to-small scale, pursuing personal themes and experimenting with music and comedy. They'll appeal to audiences intrigued by the explorations of a very individual filmmaker.
Resnais' previous masterpieces Stavisky, Providence and Mon oncle d'Amerique are very dissimilar. 1983's Life is a Bed of Roses (La vie est un roman) is another completely unexpected turn. Screenwriter Jean Grualt's narrative is split into parallel stories that were perhaps influenced by "New Age" self-fulfillment fads. At the start of WW1, millionaire Count Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) inaugurates a pleasure palace, not realizing that Livia, the woman of his dreams (Fanny Ardant) loves another. After the war Forbek has built only a fraction of his castle. Mourning the loss of many of his friends, he gathers the survivors and tells them that he intends to begin a new society of enlightenment and happiness, induced through mysterious Eastern drugs. Forbek's faithful submit to a "rebirthing" process in ornate, gilded salons. Livia is one of the volunteers, but she doesn't swallow the exotic potion, preferring to witness the Count's strange miracle.
Sixty years later, the castle is a progressive school and the center of a think-tank to transform modern education. The assembled professionals argue, criticize one another and indulge in secret liaisons. Teacher Élizabeth Rousseau (Sabine Azéma) demonstrates a "build a world" crafts-project as a motif to interest children in social science. She's humiliated by the more vocal of the academics, that dismiss her presentation in petty, personal attacks. Élizabeth finds herself attracted to famous architect Walter Guarini (Vittorio Gassman), who appears to personify true vision.
Meanwhile, the children of the professionals are free to play games and act out fantasies within the palace's forested grounds. Some of these are represented as a full-blown drama with knights, princesses and villains in a fanciful medieval kingdom. As opposed to the complicated efforts of the adults, the children have a natural connection to fantasy and game playing.
Nothing if not original, Life is a Bed of Roses develops three distinct stories. The tale of the "progressive" academics, with their conflicting interests and egos, is the best developed. The children's story provides an interesting contrast: left to their own devices, they gravitate to ancient myths. Noted comics artist Enki Bilal contributes production design to these sequences, executed with interesting glass matte paintings. As an added twist, sometimes the adult actors burst into song, almost operetta-style. The effect is strangely easy to accept.
The period tale is the most interesting. The enigmatic Count Forbek leads his disciples into a promised "new dimension" away from the world. They may find a true Utopia, or simply destroy their brains with the Eastern narcotic. The project may be the beginning of an orgiastic escape from morality, as in Buñuel's L'Age d'Or. Or it might be Forbek's elaborate, unconscious scheme to seize Livia for his own. The inductees take the potion in a circular set of fantastic art nouveau bedchambers, and congregate in a gallery that recalls the masked balls in Don Sharp's The Kiss of the Vampire and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Yet, after setting us up for a fantastic revelation, the story dwindles to an unsatisfying ending.
Among the cast is Geraldine Chaplin, apparently the go-to actress for the European art film post- 1970. Fanny Ardant would join the enchanting Sabine Azéma for the next two Resnais films, along with actors Pierre Arditi and André Dussollier, seen here in slightly smaller roles.
After Roses' tremendous set and large cast, Resnais' next film is an intimate meditation on suicide and spirituality. Also written by Jean Grualt, Love Unto Death (L'amour à mort) is a morbid study resembling an Ingmar Bergman film, with dialogue that sometimes resembles a debate.
Lovers Elisabeth Sutter and Simon Roche (Sabine Azéma & Pierre Arditi) live in the country while he supervises an archeological dig. Their best friends Judith and Jérome Martignac (Fanny Ardant & André Dussollier) are ministers, which turns dinner gatherings into ad hoc discussions of faith and morality. Pierre suffers a seizure that a doctor misinterprets as death. When he rises a few minutes later, Elisabeth is doubly shocked. The experience causes them to re-evaluate their relationship. Pierre refuses to see a doctor for further tests, concentrating instead on plans to explore America's Missouri River together. But something happens that strands Elisabeth in a strange position, between a promise to her lover and the admonitions of faith given by Judith and the less flexible Jérome.
Love Unto Death (1984) is too delicate to spoil with further plot descriptions. Resnais constructs it as dozens of tentative scenes, some only a few seconds long, separated by interruptions of a black screen and eerie music. An Edgar Allan Poe tale set in rural France, the talky script sees the four actors addressing morbid issues at all times. Jérome is not happy when Pierre insists that no artifacts of a religious nature are being uncovered in his dig of a 2,000 year-old building. Pierre and Elisabeth's refusal to believe in Christian doctrine is questioned when Pierre reveals his new belief that there may indeed be a life after death. When the third-act crisis unfolds, it is the humanistic and forgiving Judith who is able to bridge the divide between Elisabeth's forbidden obsession and the understanding of God.
Obviously this picture is a heavy dish. Love Unto Death does not wander from its central theme and remains a straight theological-moral debate. It's not the teasing guessing game of Tom Moore and Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, and also not deliriously bleak like the Mark Robson / Val Lewton The Seventh Victim. Despite sincere, touching performances the film's narrow focus limits our full involvement. It does touch upon a radical romantic notion felt by many. Inspired by her lovemaking with Pierre, Elisabeth declares that it might be better to die together at the moment of happiness, rather than live on and suffer the breakdowns and disillusions of old age. Joy, rapture, and then oblivion.
Apparently Alain Resnais clicked with his little acting company of Azéma, Ardant, Arditi and Dussollier, for he brought them together once more for 1986's Mélo, a deceptively "straight" romantic melodrama about two well-off couples in the 1920s. Resnais this time personally adapted a play by Henri Bernstein, and stages it in a handful of restricted, but impressively lush, sets. All of Resnais' films maintain high visual standards, and the surface of Mélo is as visually intense as its dramatics.
The plot couldn't be simpler: The happily married Romaine and Pierre Belcroix (Sabine Azéma & Pierre Arditi) are both former music students. Their close friend Marcel Blanc (André Dussollier) has become a famous violin soloist who travels the world giving frequent concerts. Romaine and Marcel begin an affair behind Pierre's back, and the story soon fulfills the expectations of its title.
It's common for Resnais-watchers to relate all of his films to the themes of his first, most famous features, forgetting that those films were Resnais' attempt to translate to the screen the specific visions of "nouvelle roman" authors. These 80s pictures are their own animals entirely, thematically centered on morbid themes. In Mélo Sabine Azéma repeats her character arc from Love, but for entirely different reasons. Although the previous two films are about a search for truth, Mélo resolves in a much less idealistic way -- a complete lie is the best resolution for Pierre and Marcel.
Although Resnais' filmmaking is not cold, Mélo maintains a distance from its characters. It's a melodrama about the form of the melodrama, one so visually controlled that we're almost shocked when Resnais includes a shot taken in a real nighttime street. Strangely, the film's appeal is very much like a 1940s studio film with Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck ... but with a heroine who discovers that she's not strong, and abandons herself to a cruel romantic fate. This time Resnais gets deep into the source play and avoids formal filmic effects, resulting in an interesting, satisfying drama.
I'm told that 1989's I Want to Go Home has an enthusiastic following, but Alain Resnais' comedic satire of the cultural crossover between the U.S. and France seems exceedingly flat-footed. It's a blend of the worst of American sit-coms with a superficial appreciation of the French admiration of Yankee pulp institutions, mainly the comic book. As comix, graphic comic art, manga, anime and graphic novels have by now hijacked the entire movie mainstream, one might hope for some early revelations about the trend. Not so.
I Want to Go Home is a grating comedy written by Jules Feiffer and acted by an uneven cast. Beloved showbiz writer Adolph Green (Singin' in the Rain) plays Joey Wellman, the creator of a venerated old-school comics character called Hepcat. Invited to Paris as the guest of a gallery celebrating comic art, Joey takes the offer to visit his estranged daughter Elsie (Laura Benson). Stood up by his daughter and suffering various unhappy tourist misadventures, Joey and his girlfriend Lena Apthrop (Linda Lavin) accept the invitation of Sorbonne professor and Hepcat fan Christian Gauthier (Gérard Depardieu) to weekend at the country estate of Gauthier's mother Isabelle (Micheline Presle). As it turns out, Elsie is Gauthier's student. After years attempting to join the French intellectual élite, Elsie Wellman crashes the party to meet the handsome Christian -- and runs into her father.
I Want to Go Home wants to charm but instead grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. Feiffer's cartoonish story is performed mostly in English, resulting in scenes that might seem okay to a French speaker, but ring totally false. We love Adolph Green but he mugs and shouts throughout: we've had enough of him by the second scene. As Joey Wellman's frustrated traveling companion, Linda Lavin of TV's Alice is one of maybe three characters that appeal. But Laura Benson makes little impression in a role that is both central and thankless. Benson's Elsie wants to join the Left Bank or whatever is that Americans in Paris aspire to do, but her awful French accent and insensitivity to cultural niceties doom her to failure.
Since I Want to Go Home is a farce, we can't get a handle on these problematical characters. The "cuter" the film tries to be, the flatter it falls. Feiffer has the Hepcat character talk to Elsie in thought balloons, a gag that just doesn't work. The weekend in the chateau involves a costume party and plenty of sneaking off into corners for illicit romantic encounters. Feiffer's limp hijinks are painfully laugh-challenged. One doesn't want to slam the door and say that Alain Resnais isn't cut out for light comedy, but ....
Green's Joey Wellman alternately hates France or loves it, depending on whether the locals are being rude or expressing admiration for his work. As he never took his art seriously, Joey is enraptured to discover that the French consider him a genius. In the structurally valid but almost completely unsuccessful conclusion, Joey finds himself among a bunch of woefully caricatured French "common rural folk". Jumping and gesticulating because the "uncooperative" locals don't understand English, Joey learns that he can relate to people even if they never heard of Hepcat.
Kino's Alain Resnais: A Decade in Film is a handsome DVD presentation. All four films enjoy excellent enhanced transfers with bright colors and clear sound. The English subtitles are removable. The extras include original French trailers -- most of these films did not receive extensive American releases, even on the art circuit. Life is a Bed of Roses has an interesting behind the scenes production featurette. Actor Pierre Arditi appears in a recent interview talking about his experiences with director Resnais. Producer Marin Karmitz is also interviewed for two of the pictures, providing excellent background information but also some unnecessarily defensive remarks.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alain Resnais: A Decade in Film rates:
Movies: Roses Excellent, Death Very Good ++, Mélo Excellent, Home Fair
Supplements: Trailers, featurette, interviews
Packaging: four discs in Keep case
Reviewed: June 27, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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