would translate the title of the late Alain Resnais’s 1983 film “La vie est un roman” as “Life is a novel.” “Life is a fairy-tale” would be apt, but the American title “Life Is a Bed of Roses” suggests that the translator just heard the “ro-“. Or it could be ironic in that two of the three stories involve men attempting to impose happiness on others and largely failing (though blissing out many in one).
Two of the stories take place in the same location, a bizarre art nouveau caste in the Ardennes begun in with a lavish groundbreaking 1914 for Count Michel Forbek (played by opera baritone Ruggerio Raimondi who played Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni (1979), and was the Baron Scarpia in Benoít Jacquot’s Tosca (2001)). World War I interrupts construction and costs the lives of the architect and key builders, but half the rather Mesopotamian-decor castle is finished. Count Forbek invites many of his high-society friends to embark on a journey of rebirth to bliss.
Livia Cerasquier (the divine Fanny Ardant, for me the paramount of the “Eight Women” as well as Maria Callas in “Forever Callas), the love of the count’s life has wed another. Her husband takess the potion. She does not. She then observes the stages of reactions of the others and emulates them.
That story is intercut with a conference being held in the present (1983) for various educators seeking to maximize children’s inventiveness. The castle has become a boarding school. Only three of the students are there, where they are joined by the daughter of an anthropologist named Nora Winkler who did fieldwork in an all-male environment of oil workers on James Bay (a Canadian connection if a strained one!).
Nora is in love with an Italian education guru named Walter Guarini (played by Vittorio Gassman). In a sort of Les Liaisons dangereuses mood, she bets that the innocent lovelorn young public school teacher Élisabeth Rousseau (Sabine Azéma, who also starred in Resnais’s “Mélo” along with Ardant and in Resnais’s “On connaít la chanson”, “Pas sur la bouche,” and “Coeurs/”Private Fears in Public Places”) will fall in love with the male conference attendee Nora considers the biggest jerk, Forbeck Institute teacher/clown Robert Dufresne (Pierre Arditi, ,who also starred in Resnais’s “Mélo” along with Ardant and Azéma and with Azéma in “Coeurs/”Private Fears in “Mélo,” Public Places” and “On connaít la chanson”), though he is already sleeping with a blonde teacher at Forbeck, Claudine Obertin (Martine Kelly).
Sound complicated? There is also a third narrative seemingly randomly intercut with the other two (in ways that feel like interruptions and were intended to be “alienation effects”). The four children imagine a rather Wagnerian fairy tale about an evil usurper to the throne, a noble nurse who saves the infant rightful heir to the throne, who grows up as a mix of Siegfried and Parsifal and leads an army of dwarves.
The children’s imagined story is mostly sung. Various characters and ensembles in the other two story burst into song or at least into chants. In the bonus feature, “Resnais est un Roman,” Resnais says that a song can save a lot of narrative exposition. I find this a peculiar claim in that the singing in the movie is mostly repetitious and does not advance the plot lines.
Resnais identifies the main theme of the film as being the difficulties of attaining happiness without hurting (the feelings of) others. The inability of grown-ups to grow up is a subsidiary theme. And one that seems more important to me is that schemes for universal happiness (as happiness is understood by someone considering himself a benevolent despot like Count Forbek) are going to find resistance from some who do not aspire to bland sameness. Fanny Ardant has a quiet fiery speech about wanting to feel deeply both emotional highs and lows.
The jump cuts from one story to another are somewhere between frustrating and unnerving. I was slow to realize that the medieval-looking one was supposed to be what the children were imagining.
I thought that Fanny Ardant, Geraldine Chaplin, and Sabine Azéma were stand outs in the large cast.
In retrospect, “La vie est un roman” is the transition between Resnais’s severely formalist portrayals of fraught love (Hiroshima, Mon Amour; L’Année dernière à Marienbad; Muriel; Providence) and his later more films that seem throwbacks to 1930s ones in many ways, but also to the character-driven ones of Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, et al.). It is a transition that still seems surprising to me, though the half-hour “making of” feature makes more sense of continuities, not least in refusal to provide definitive conclusions.
“La vie est un roman” is not really open-ended, but the apparent resolutions (new relationships) in all three stories leave many possibilities of failures beyond the last frame of the film.