La Vie Est Un Roman Review
La Vie Est un Roman (Life Is A Fairy Tale or sometimes less accurately known in the USA as Life Is A Bed of Roses) is a film full of idiosyncrasies and stylistic mannerisms typical of Alain Resnais. Far away from the stylishly enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and on a road that would culminate with On Connaît La Chanson (1997), La Vie Est un Roman falls somewhere in between the two, coolly stylish and distant, yet capable of breaking into life and song at any moment.
The film is divided into three strands or parallel stories. The first part is set around the first decade of twentieth century in the Ardennes, where Count Forbeck (Raimondi) unveils his architect’s designs for a utopian city of happiness. The plans receive a set-back with the outbreak of war, but the count continues with his plan and the members of the cult are given a drug which will enable them to be reborn into a life of perfect harmony and happiness. His former lover Livia (Ardant) however, doesn’t succumb to the treatment.
In a modern day parallel, a group of teachers and professors now inhabiting Forbek’s baroque castle, seek a new form of education and enlightenment through the use of the imagination and under the guidance of another guru, Guanini (Gussman). In both these strands, people themselves resist the idea of a prefabricated and preconditioned happiness, seeking to find happiness in their own way. Happiness, they find, does not come through harmony and a common ideal imposed by another person, but through discord and expression of one’s own individuality.
The third strand depicts a Wagnerian fantasy landscape of kings and dragons, the imaginations of the children of some of the professors at the school. The film itself is a celebration of the imagination. In an attempt to create a school that rises above language and find a new method of communication, the characters are offering a commentary on the film itself. Resnais is happy to appropriate ideas from whatever storytelling medium he feels will get his message across. Characters will break unexpectedly into song, operatic elements are introduced and Enki Bilal designed fairytales are inserted into the film. The film’s style is integral to the story, the film becoming both the medium and the message. Is cinema a recreational toy that stifles the imagination by placing images and ideas unquestioningly before us, or can it force us to use our own imagination? It is dissonance rather than harmony that sparks off imagination and creativity according to Resnais and he certainly tries to do that here. It is not an original idea and this film is not the best example of that premise, but it has a certain value.
The DVD reviewed is part of the French Alain Resnais 5-DVD box set from MK2, which also contains Mon Oncle d'Amérique, L’Amour à Mort, Mélo and I Want To Go Home. Each of the films can also be bought separately. As usual, MK2 have provided substantial and very relevant extras for each of the films, but unfortunately, while the films are fully subtitled in English, the extras are in French and contain no subtitles at all.
The picture looks very good, but there are a number of problems when examined close-up. The colour is gorgeous, the Forbek scenes glowing with warmth and depth, while the Guanini part of the film displays clear, natural, autumnal shades. There is really not a mark on the print and it looks sharp and clear, but there is quite a bit of digital artefacting throughout the whole film. Backgrounds are not solid and tend to waver, blocks of grain shifting constantly. It rarely intrudes into foreground of the film, but occasionally, such as the first scene where Geraldine Chaplin meets the other professors, the whole scene seems to vibrate and shimmer. It is unfortunate, because otherwise this looks very impressive indeed, with rich colours and strong tones.
There is nothing exceptional about the soundtrack, although the musical score itself is excellent. It is presented, as I imagine it originally was, in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. It works well without any problems.The film is subtitled in English and the titles and translation are generally fine, barring a few minor typographical errors ("wether", "traveled").
Documentary – Resnais est un Roman (1983) (29:20)
Filmed entirely on the set of the film with many behind the scenes looks at the Resnais directing and filming, this is a fascinating and very useful documentary. Resnais discusses his ideas for the film and the themes in great detail. The principal theme of the film for Resnais is how one creates happiness for oneself without harming your neighbour, and the secondary theme is the ‘birth of faith’. These are not so important for the viewer to pick up while watching the film, but more important for the cast and crew to be able to accurately convey the central idea that they are communicating. To achieve this, the director discusses his methods, including using songs which, like Dennis Potter whom Resnais admired, he believes communicate emotion and feelings much better than words alone. The documentary, unfortunately is in French only without English or any subtitles.
Entretien avec Alain Resnais (Oct 2002) (11:03)
Alain Resnais speaks to Serge Toubiana, the interviewer in all the extra material on the disc. The interview is audio only and divided into 5 chapters. Some of the director’s working methods are already covered in the documentary, here he explains in more detail his approach to automatic writing – running with an idea or an image without over-analysing why – and the difficulties that come with this approach when trying to put it onto the screen. He speaks only a little about La Vie Est Un Roman directly.
Sabine Azéma (1990) (2:44)
A short extract from an interview, Azéma describes her nervousness working with Resnais for the first time, but she was allowed to be herself and was encouraged to do so. Many of the subsequent interviews also state how easy Resnais was to work with.
Jean Gruault (Oct 2002) (18 mins)
An important figure on the nouvelle vague scene, Gruault has worked with Jacques Rivette (Paris Nous Appartient), Jean-Luc Godard (Les Carabiniers) and François Truffaut (several scripts including Jules Et Jim). As the writer for this film, Gruault was given free reign by Resnais to bring together a long list of his personal obsessions as a jumping off point for the script of the film. He discusses the numerous and varied influences and inspirations from Les Vampires and Fantômas, pulp fiction and BD art to Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the operas The Marriage of Figaro and Falstaff, all of whose influence is evident in this rich film.
Sylvette Baudrot (Sept 2002) (15 mins)
One of the most interesting interviews among a terrific set of extras, scriptwriter Baudrot discusses the mechanics of pulling the film together from the shooting script to the editing script, making use of diagrammatic notes and an annotated and illustrated script full of original Polaroid’s – a kind of ‘Bible’ for the film. Truly fascinating.
Jacques Saulnier (Sept 2002) (13 mins)
The set designer provides commentary on scenes from the film, discussing the design of the château, the colour schemes used and the use of Bilal’s paintings on glass for the fantasy fairy-tale sequences.
The Alain Resnais collection
Trailers for all the films in the Resnais box set are included here - Mon Oncle d'Amérique(1980), La Vie Est Un Roman (1983), L'Amour à Mort (1984), Mélo (1986) and I Want to go Home (1989).
A fascinating film from an important director, La Vie Est Un Roman might be a touch eccentric for some, but is nevertheless a fascinating and rich piece of work. It is impossible to be bored as there is no way of knowing where it is going or what stylistic technique or design it is going to make use of next. A superb set of extras, worthy of a Criterion Collection double set, are packed onto the DVD, which might perhaps account for some of the artefacting problems with the picture, but this is still an excellent looking DVD.