Although best known for a trio of films released between 1955 and 1961 (Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Last Year at Marienbad), octogenarian French director Alain Resnais experienced a recent resurgence of interest in his work after winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2006 for Private Fears in Public Places (aka Coeurs). Perhaps to capitalize on this resurgent interest, Kino has just released four of Resnais' minor films from the 1980s: Life Is a Bed of Roses (1983) (aka La Vie est un roman), Love unto Death (1984) (aka L' Amour à mort), Mélo (1986), and I Want to Go Home (1989) (aka Je veux rentrer à la maison). Three of these films, Life Is a Bed of Roses, Love unto Death (1984), and Mélo (1986) have identical core casts and explore common themes. This review concerns the second of these, Love unto Death (1984).
In this second of three films utilizing the same four lead actors, Pierre Arditi plays Simone a middle-aged archeologist who is estranged from his wife and children. Simone is living in a cottage with the latest in a succession of girlfriends, Elisabeth (Sabine Azéma). The other couple to round out this quartet are Simone's close friends Judith (Fanny Ardant) and Jérôme (André Dussollier), who are Protestant pastors in the small village Simone and Elisabeth are living in.
Questions of death, both by natural causes and suicide, and love, both eros (erotic) and agape (selfless), feature prominently in this chamber drama. The film begins with a near-death experience for Simone that causes him to reexamine the way that he lives his life, his relationships with Elisabeth and his friends, and his beliefs about God and an afterlife. Simone's inquiry into how to live his life turns to an inquiry about death and what follows when he experiences a number of dizzy spells which convince him that his remaining life is quickly draining away.
The impact of Simone's tumultuous experiences fall nearly equally hard on Elisabeth whose love for Simone grows so intense following his near-death experience that she considers whether life without him is worth living. Judith and Jérôme's beliefs are also put to the test as buried issues concerning Simone's past resurface.
Discordant atonal musical interludes composed by Hans Werner Henze and set mostly against darkened winter skies feature prominently throughout the film. These interludes are placed between nearly every scene in the film and extend for as long as 35 seconds each. Whether these interludes offer a welcome opportunity for contemplation or an undue indulgence by Resnais is a matter of taste, though I lean toward the latter despite my usual preference for opportunities to mull over a story's intricacies.
Kino has done a fairly good job. The 2.35:1 image is preserved and is given an anamorphic presentation. No PAL to NTSC conversion issues and no digital artifacts were apparent during close review of this disc though there are contrary opinions and this may come down to a matter of equipment. There is some dirt and the image does display a high degree of grain at times, likely either intentional or a product of the original film elements. Overall the image appears very good for a minor film over twenty years old.
This disc preserves the original 2.0 stereo audio track without any noticeable dropouts or distortions.
Extras include a trailer for this film and a 21-minute interview with actor Pierre Arditi in which he discusses his long working relationship with director Alain Resnais.
While Love unto Death isn't bad, it's not in the same league with Resnais' most renowned work. The film explores big issues, but it's more expository than revelatory, and overall the film lacks the vitality, innovation, and depth of Resnais' better works. Whether Love unto Death is worth seeing turns largely on one's appreciation for the extended interludes between scenes. To me it feels excessive.