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Four Alain Resnais Films on DVD

by David Sterritt

Love Unto Death is a Bergmanesque chamber drama

Love Unto Death is a Bergmanesque chamber drama

Looking for a minor piece of information about Alain Resnais recently, I typed his name into Google and was startled by the result—plenty of hits, but amazingly few substantial pieces of writing. He’s directed four dozen features and shorts, and he’s in postproduction on Les Herbes folles as I write. But from the way most critics still fixate on a handful of early films, you’d think he ran out of ideas after Mon oncle d’Amérique in 1980, or even La Guerre est finie in 1966.

Of course Resnais made his most brilliant contributions early on, including the 1955 documentary Night and Fog and his first four features: Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), and La Guerre est finie. And of course he made some disappointing movies, even some poor ones, in subsequent decades. But the current neglect of his oeuvre as a whole is scandalous. I hope the situation will start to change now that Kimstim and Kino International have released four neglected Resnais films from the Eighties—one flat-out masterpiece, one near masterpiece, one beguiling misfire, and to round out the series, the most God-awful movie he ever made.

The masterpiece is Love Unto Death, aka L’Amour à mort, first released in 1984. Resnais has always insisted that writing and directing are two different jobs, and that he belongs to the latter profession, not so much creating material as interpreting stories developed for him by scenarists. His modesty is exaggerated, to say the least—he is a creator par excellence—but a gift for selecting first-rate screenwriters (e.g., Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet) has always been one of his best assets. L’Amour à Mort was scripted by Jean Gruault, whose credits range from founding classics of the French New Wave—Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us (1960), François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers ((1963)—to more recent works by Chantal Akerman and the Dardenne brothers. He and Resnais strike a perfect balance here, crafting one of the most intelligent films ever made on the subjects of love and death. Equally outstanding is the cast, headed by Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier, and Fanny Ardant, who show up in most of these Kimstim/Kino films.

The main characters are a couple named Simon and Elisabeth, and their story begins at a joltingly high pitch: Simon is sprawled on the bedroom floor, apparently dying an agonizing death as Elisabeth looks on in horror. A doctor arrives, examines Simon, and pronounces him dead. Yet moments later the victim strolls down the stairs, as healthy as can be. There’s no explanation for what’s happened, but Simon and Elisabeth are happy to count their blessings and move on. At first, that is. As time passes, Simon is increasingly haunted by his experience, and becomes convinced that the miracle was a mistake—that death was his destiny that night, and that he’s now obliged to shuffle off his mortal coil without further delay.

Resnais combines theater and film in Melo

Resnais combines theater and film in M élo

Alarmed by this idea, Elisabeth pours out her feelings to their closest friends, Jérôme and Judith, a married couple who are Protestant clerics. The rest of the film carries two complementary storylines—one centering on Simon’s death drive, the other on Elisabeth’s superhuman loyalty—to their (il)logical conclusions, using the reactions of Jérôme and Judith as a rich philosophical counterpoint. More emotional meaning comes from musical passages by Hans Werner Henze, heard during breaks that separate the scenes, Brechtian style.

The film is clearly influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s work—especially the 1962 drama Winter Light, which also explores the lure of death and the ineffectuality of faith—but the spirit that I feel hovering over L’Amour à mort is that of Samuel Beckett, both verbally and visually. The movie is a chamber piece, like many of Beckett’s plays, teasing out its ideas with consummate focus and economy; and the ideas echo Beckett’s existentialist fixation on life’s absurdity in the face of mortality and oblivion. More specifically, it’s well known that Beckett had a major epiphany when he heard psychologist C.G. Jung lecture about the condition of feeling “never properly born,” as if the process of birth (literally or metaphorically) had somehow been interrupted—a syndrome Beckett instantly recognized in himself. Simon’s predicament is the flip side of this condition; he feels he hasn’t properly died, and must now carry the process to completion.

The brooding tones of Sacha Vierny’s cinematography bear out these Beckett parallels, as in a stunning moment when Simon and Elisabeth exchange their thoughts while hovering in darkness, their faces gazing past each other toward the obscurity around them; in a DVD extra, Arditi tells how strenuous it was to make this long, static shot, which required him and Azéma to pose for ages in a weirdly strained position. Their work pays enormous dividends, here and throughout the film. L’Amour à mort belongs to a rarefied genre that contains only a few superb specimens, Bresson’s The Devil Probably, Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, and Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry among them. It is a suicide procedural, and one of the very best.

Almost as affecting is Mélo, a 1986 release that also reflects Resnais’s career-long interest in blurring the boundaries between cinema and theater, life and performance. The screenplay is taken directly from an eponymous stage play by Henry Bernstein, first produced in 1929. Arditi and Dusollier play classical musicians who are close friends despite their different lifestyles—one is a single-minded careerist, the other is a mellow suburbanite who loves married life as much as music. Little does the suburbanite know that his old pal and his pretty young wife are sliding into a passionate affair that will have grim consequences. Filmed entirely on theatrical sets, Mélo is lushly artificial in everything but its emotions, and the artifice actually enhances the feelings it conveys. One example is a scene where a grieving man recites a letter from a dead woman he loved; the camera moves tactfully away from him and the image fades to darkness while his voice continues to read, as if the film itself were journeying to the underworld at this moment.

Mélo is a more complicated title than it seems—derived from the Greek for “music,” it’s a French colloquialism for “weepy” and “schmaltzy,” and it’s also a term for “melodrama,” which originally meant “drama with music.” (M. Philippe-Gérard composed the movie score, but Brahms and J.S. Bach—another Bergman connection – are also heard.) Each of these meanings is germane to the subtly multifaceted film. In a DVD interview, Marin Karmitz says this was the twentieth movie he produced but the first he “produced right.” He’s a little off about the number—it was more like his thirteenth—but he’s entirely correct about the excellence of the result.

Life is a Bed of Roses asks if we ever really mature

Life is a Bed of Roses asks if we ever really mature

The fascinating misfire among these films is La Vie est un roman, aka Life Is a Bed of Roses, released in 1983. It would take as long to summarize the plot(s) as it takes to watch the movie, but Gruault’s screenplay is basically a three-tiered affair. Some scenes center on a millionaire’s plan to build a Temple of Happiness, which is kept from completion by the outbreak of World War I; other scenes depict a group of present-day intellectuals who gather there for an eccentric educational conference; and the remaining scenes, plopped into the movie here and there, show a warrior contending with a king in a fairy-tale setting. All are luminously filmed by Bruno Nuytten.

The movie breaks into song from time to time—singers Ruggero Raimondi and Cathy Berberian are in the cast—and Resnais says in a DVD extra that he wanted to make a film that gives equal weight to speech and music but isn’t a musical or an opera; this reflects his offbeat notion that music is a great communicator of information as well as feelings. Resnais also explains the movie’s themes, which include the question of whether one can create happiness for oneself without bringing unhappiness to others, and whether the world actually contains any grownups, since people are usually guided more by childish impulse than mature deliberation. For more on all this, read Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, which is quoted at length in the DVD’s marvelously strange making-of documentary. Or have a double feature of Resnais’s movie and your favorite Kenneth Anger film; you’ll be surprised how much they have in common.

Now for the God-awful film in this set: I Want to Go Home, released in 1989 but never distributed in the U.S. even though the dialog is in English about half the time. Written by the legendary American cartoonist Jules Feiffer, it’s about a legendary American cartoonist (played by Adolph Green, the show-tune lyricist) visiting his estranged daughter in Paris, where she’s in the thrall of an intellectual played by Gérard Depardieu, the only cast member who manages to survive the picture’s overheated acting, stupid jokes, irritating cartoon interludes, and mean-spirited anti-French clichés.

I’d pass over this clunker in silence except that producer Karmitz aggressively defends it a DVD interview—not as an interesting failure, but as a major and enduring work of art. Sacre bleu! I suppose he deserves credit for sticking to his guns and predicting that history will vindicate the picture. Then again, George W. Bush thinks history will vindicate his presidency. It’s a toss-up which prophecy will come true first, but my money’s on the proverbial freeze-over in hell.

Life Is a Bed of Roses (Produced by Philippe Dussart; written by Jean Gruault; cinematography by Bruno Nuytten; production design by Jacques Saulnier; edited by Albert Jurgenson; music by M. Philippe-Gérard; with Vittorio Gassman, Ruggero Raimondi, Geraldine Chaplin, Fanny Ardant, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Robert Manuel, Martine Kelly, Samson Fainsilber, Veronique Silver, Andre Dussollier, Guillaume Boisseau, Sabine Thomas, Rodolphe Schacher, Jean-Claude Arnaud, Lucienne Hamon, Jean-Louis Richard, Helene Patarot, Flavie Ducorps, Jean-Claude Corbel, Jean-Michel Dupuis, Michel Muller, Philippe Laudenbach, Cathy Berberian. DVD, color, 110 mins., 1983).

Love Unto Death (Produced by Philippe Dussart; written by Jean Gruault; music by Hans Werner Henze; cinematography by Sacha Vierny; production design by Jacques Saulnier, Philippe Turlure; edited by Albert Jurgenson; with Sabine Azéma, Fanny Ardant, Pierre Arditi, André Dussollier, Jean Dasté, Geneviève Mnich, Jean-Claude Weibel, Françoise Rigal, Louis Castel, Françoise Morhange. DVD, color, 92 mins., 1984).

Mélo (From the play by Henry Bernstein; cinematography by Charlie Van Damme; production design by Jacques Saulnier; edited by Albert Jurgenson; music by Philippe-Gérard; with Sabine Azéma, Fanny Ardant, Pierre Arditi, André Dussollier, Jacques Dacqmine, Hubert Gignoux, Catherine Arditi. DVD, color, 112 mins., 1986).

I Want to Go Home (Produced by Marin Karmitz; written by Jules Feiffer; cinematography by Charlie Van Damme; production design by Jacques Saulnier; edited by Albert Jurgenson; music by John Kander; with Adolph Green, Gerard Depardieu, Linda Lavin, Micheline Presle, John Ashton, Laura Benson, Caroline Sihol, Francois-Eric Gendron, Lucienne Hamon, Catherine Arditi, Anne Roussel, Jean Champion, Emmanuelle Chaulet, Pierre Decazes, Nicolas Tronc, Georges Fricker, Francoise Bertin, Geraldine Chaplin. DVD, color, 101 mins., 1989). Kimstim, distributed by Kino International, www.kino.com.

David Sterritt, Chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, is a film professor at Columbia University and co-editor of The B List

To buy the Alain Resnais releases click here .

Cineaste, Vol. 33 No.4 (Fall 2008).

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