Watched for Resnais’s 90th birthday. One of the most excellent, entertaining and moving Resnais films I’ve seen. Too bad it’s five hours long so I won’t be able to show it to anyone else. Just two actors (Sabine Azema, recently great in Wild Grass, and Pierre Arditi, her resurrected fiancee in Love Unto Death) play about four characters each. Each movie begins with Sabine thinking about grabbing a cigarette – in one she does, in the other she doesn’t – and builds from there, branching into multiple stories based on different decisions made by the characters, all of them more meaningful and consequential than the cigarette, rewinding to show the opposite decisions and their outcomes, building a structured mega-narrative, showing how the same characters deal with different circumstances.

Smoking

Cartoon character intros. School principal’s wife Celia Teasdale grabs a cigarette, and school caretaker Lionel Hepplewick shows up to look at her garden. Lionel flirts with Sylvie, the Teasdales’ maid.

Five Days Later: the Teasdales admit their marriage is over. Red-cheeked principal Toby decides to leave for a while.

Five Weeks Later: Celia has started over as a caterer, is working her first event with Lionel, who proves a poor business partner. She loses her damn mind, very amusingly, and Toby feels awful and returns to her.

Five Years Later: funeral of local poet Joe Hepplewick, Lionel’s father. Toby has quit drinking, and Celia is still troubled after her catering breakdown. Lionel succeeded in the food industry, married a businesswoman and runs a thriving cafeteria, while Celia, whose idea it was, is a shell of her former energetic self, cared for by her sad husband.

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back at the catering job at the tail end of the breakdown, Lionel comes running up and assures Celia that she can count on him.

Five Years Later: Poet Joe’s funeral, Toby and Celia barely recognize each other. She’s still partnered with Lionel running their successful business, and Toby is a drunken mess. “At each funeral I feel like I’m being buried myself.”

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back in their garden, Toby Teasdale doesn’t leave his wife but proposes a vacation. Lionel is crushed that Celia’s leaving, and tells him the catering thing was just a pipe dream.

Five Weeks Later: comic scene at a hotel terrace. Lionel has followed them, got a job as a waiter, and keeps trying to secretly speak with Celia, bringing her desserts as a pretense. Toby finds out and has him fired.

Five Years Later: funeral for Toby. Celia is accompanied by Toby’s friend Miles, and obsessed Lionel is there working as a gravedigger, still following Celia.

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back at the hotel, Toby restrains himself after learning that Lionel has followed them. Celia admits she encouraged him and Lionel agrees to leave her alone.

Five Years Later: commemorative service to celebrate the school’s anniversary. Celia is still with Toby and they’re unhappy again/still. Lionel pops by, married and successful with a taxi business.

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back at the Teasdales’ garden when Lionel was flirting with the maid Sylvie on the first day of the fateful cigarette, he agrees to go out with her if she’ll stop dating other guys – so he never ends up involved with Celia at all.

Five Days Later: After their date, Lionel starts working on Sylvie, telling herself she needs to improve herself if they’re ever going to make something of themselves. She gets principal Toby to agree to help her learn about literature. Toby’s wife Celia comes home, complains at Toby to stop drinking, saying Miles saved his ass from getting fired. Lionel is pleased that Sylvie is taking her self-improvement seriously.

Five Weeks Later: town festivities and a rare sighting of poet Joe Hepplewick in a wheelchair, talking with Celia, then with Sylvie about her future with his son Lionel. She’s testy when talking with now-unemployed Lionel. Toby is looking better, inspired by his new role as Sylvie’s mentor, but she tells him she’s stopping the lessons because there’s no point. Sylvie gets stuck in the stockade, where she’s to be pelted with sponges later during the festival, and Lionel hits her with one instead of freeing her.

Five Years Later: Lionel and Sylvie have two boys, are christening their young daughter. Lionel is still kind of a fuckup, and he tells Celia that Sylvie is boss in their household. Toby is feeling better since quitting his principal job, acting as godfather to the baby girl. “I’ll personally keep an eye on her education.” “I thought you were fed up with education.” “This is a special case.”

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back at the festival, Lionel frees her after all, and Sylvie says she won’t marry him, then tricks him into the stockade.

Five Years Later: Principal Toby is sick-drunk at the school’s anniversary celebration. Sylvie is a reporter now, arrives to interview the principal, says Lionel married someone else. “She wasn’t as lucky as you were.” Sylvie thanks Toby for his lessons years earlier. “You showed me the way so I could escape,” and makes the principal feel happy again.

No Smoking

Celia decides against that cigarette, and misses Lionel’s visit, is visited by Toby’s friend Miles instead, who tells her that the school board is about to fire her husband for being drunk and erratic, that Miles is trying to save him. Celia says don’t bother, tells Miles that she’s leaving Toby anyway for being a shitty husband. But when she goes back in the house, Miles tells maid Sylvie to deliver the message that he’s going to try anyway, and that the four of them (he has a rocky marriage to serial cheater Rowena) should have dinner this weekend.

Five Days Later: in the garden, the only two who show for dinner are Celia and Miles – who recently saved Toby’s job at the school. Turns out Toby stayed away on purpose, wanted Miles to talk to Celia, deliver the message that Toby still wants to stay with her. But Miles is in love with Celia. Awkward dinner becomes stranger when Celia’s mom Josephine shows up, asks Miles a lot of questions (but she is very discreet). He is fed up, goes and hides in the shed, as Toby stumbles home and eats with Celia.

Five Weeks Later: confessions on the golf course. “It’s only gotten worse since he stopped drinking.” Red-haired Rowea taunts husband Miles, then gets him to read her a poem.

Five Years Later: Easter, and Miles sees Celia in the churchyard. Toby died years earlier and Miles and Rowena moved away. Back visiting now, but nobody seems especially happy.

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back at the golf course, Rowena tells Miles it’s not going to work out.

Five Years Later: School’s 50th, both couples are broken up, Miles and Toby have moved away and live together, with difficulty, and Celia has scored a job at the school.

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back at the beginning, Miles says he’ll defend Toby to the school board and doesn’t propose any dinner with Celia. Later, arguing with his wife on a walk through the Teasdales’ garden, Rowena locks him in the shed. Sylvie the maid lets him out, and he spontaneously invites her on a walk around the British coast, which he’d always wanted to do with his wife but never got the chance. Celia comes out to talk, says Sylvie left a message that she doesn’t like long walks, and that Rowena is out with another guy. Miles decides to go back into the shed.

Five Weeks Later: Miles is still in the shed, much to Toby’s annoyance. Rowena messes with Lionel, throws his pants in the fire when he removes them to show off, then talks her husband out of the shed, but he says he’s leaving to start over somewhere new.

Five Years Later: midnight mass. Sylvie, now married to Lionel, sees Miles in the churchyard. He’s waiting for Rowena. “You were right. You can’t start over again.”

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back at the shed, Rowena is nicer to Miles and gets him to come home.

Five Years Later: party at the school, Rowena scares off Lionel, is completely nasty to her husband.

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back at the shed, Celia delivers the message that Sylvie loves long walks.

Five Weeks Later: Sylvie lied, is complaining about her shoes and the cold and leg cramps on the first day of her hiking trip with Miles. They are infatuated though, and share a kiss, rare in this movie, but they’re also getting on each other’s nerves. They talk it out in a travelers’ cabin. “I always have my worst moments in sheds.” Sylvie wanders off, and Rowena arrives to collect her husband.

Five Years Later: Sylvie is just marrying Lionel, and Miles is walking her down the aisle. Rowena comes by in a red Devo hat and is pretty nice to her husband for once.

OR IT WENT LIKE THIS

Back on the hiking path, Miles refuses to follow Rowena and falls to his death in the fog.

Five Years Later: a memorial ceremony for Miles led by Toby. “His widow told us he has a preference for sheds,” so they dedicated a shed in the churchyard in his memory. Sylvie and Rowena separately tell Toby that they’ll come at times, sit in the shed and think of Miles. “Incredible, what a story. Hard to understand.”

Nice movie, with good music and a surprisingly strong endings to each title. Not shown above: Irene Pridworthy, school vice principal. Based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn (Coeurs) in which a different series of variations is performed every night, so it takes sixteen performances to catch them all. Resnais and his writers cut it down to twelve for the film. Won an award in Berlin, and best picture at the Cesars, also best director, screenplay, production design and actor, but actress went to Binoche for Blue.

Ayckbourn in 2007:

They all finish with a certain dying fall, except for a couple that go up in mood. In general, the point is that we do have free will and we can choose, but we can’t change unless we make a huge effort. Only Sylvie makes a big change; she’s the one who changes the most. If you don’t change, you just end up in the same place. How many men do we know who end up marrying the same woman again and again! At the end of their lives, people who have unsuccessful relationships will say weren’t they unlucky in love but maybe they were impossible to live with. Anyone who would marry Lionel Hepplewick in Intimate Exchanges must be mad!

I looked up five reviews, and each said the movie grew tiresome and wasn’t inventive enough with its premise – except for J. Rosenbaum, of course.

Resnais’ fascination with a highly theatrical cinema, first broached in Mélo, gets freakishly extended here, with two of the same actors running brittle, virtuosic relays between multiple roles. On the stage, Aykbourn’s plays were meant to be performed over eight consecutive evenings; eliminating the two most “English” scenes — a medieval pageant and a cricket game — Resnais commissioned Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui, his subsequent writers on Same Old Song, to squeeze this into two two-hour features, to be seen interactively in whatever order the audience prefers. In practice, Resnais reported that most French viewers hedonistically opted for Smoking first. And it appears that what they found more palatable than their Anglo-American counterparts is a principal identified by critic François Thomas as pivotal to Resnais’ later films — an alternation between affection and recoil, identification and distance, sweetness and bitterness reflecting the influence of Follies and other musicals by Stephen Sondheim.

Set in 1926. The same cast as Love Unto Death – again putting Sabine Azema together with Pierre Arditi. This time they are happily married until Andre Dussolier comes around to visit, in a half-hour dinner-conversation opening scene. Sabine beins a passionate affair with Andre, her husband’s old classmate at music school, now an accomplished violinist. Unlike Love Unto Death (which I think I prefer), the only music we hear is played by the characters.

A red curtain declares the start of act 2. Pierre is sick, has been sick for a couple weeks, and cousin Fanny Ardant calls a doctor one day while Sabine is away. This is trouble because he starts asking questions, like what are the drops that Sabine has been giving her husband ever since shortly before he became ill. On top of Pierre’s illness, his wife is becoming hostile, disappearing for long periods of time.

Red curtain, act 3. Sabine killed herself three years earlier and her cousin Fanny has married Pierre, and knows about her cousin’s affair with the violinist. She tries to keep the secret from Pierre but he suspects, visits Andre and challenges him. Andre holds his own, never admits the affair, and Pierre drops it. Movie seems to end on a hopeful, reconcilatory note as they play music together.

A small-scale, controlled film, with theatrical staging (just a few locations) but thoughtful camera work. The girl cheating while her man is performing his music reminds me of To Be Or Not To Be (or Unfaithfully Yours). Sabine and Pierre won Cesar awards, but Resnais lost to Alain Cavalier and Therese.

I was going to choose something to quote from J. Rosenbaum’s 1988 article on the film, reprinted in Placing Movies, but it’s such a long and thoughtful piece, I don’t feel like chopping bits out of it.

A comedy with grating performances and no jokes. One of the central points of the movie is this crude American cartoonist who is only appreciated by Parisian intellectuals, possibly in reference to Resnais influence Jerry Lewis. But Resnais (and writer Jules Feiffer, who critically also adapted Robert Altman’s failed live-action cartoon Popeye) make an unfunny movie about an unlikeable artist – perhaps a movie only French intellectuals could love.

Joey, Lena, Gerard:

Opens (after the multilingual credits) with a lovely process shot of a plane in the clouds, then follows with young Elsie speaking to herself, alternating between unconvincing French and unconvincing English, and seeing visions of poorly-animated cartoon cats. With a name like Laura Benson, shouldn’t her English be fine? Turns out she’s just not a good actress.

Two years later Joey, a blustery Walter-Matthauish guy with large teeth (played by Adolph Green, writer of the song “New York, New York”) who also sees cartoon cats arrives in Paris with his suffering girlfriend/assistant Lena. He ignores her, hates Paris, wants to see his daughter Elsie, but ends up meeting Elsie’s idol, famous Flaubert scholar Gerard Depardieu, going to his house (followed, belatedly, by Elsie) and hooking up with Gerard’s mom Isabelle (Micheline Presle of Rivette’s The Nun, American Guerrilla in the Philippines), while Lena wanders dejected in the background. A cartoon costume party ensues (with prominent Popeye and Olive Oyl characters), revealing that Alain Resnais has no particular talent for big madcap comic action sequences. It should be over, but we’re inexplicably treated to five more minutes of extremely grating loud complaints from Joey, a couple of undeserved reconciliation scenes, and a possible new love interest for Elsie as she returns to the U.S. leaving Joey to torment people in France.

I was hopeful. I’ve heard this was Resnais’s worst film, but figured a huge fan such as myself should still find plenty to appreciate. Sure it started terribly, but it got increasingly bearable, peaking with a nice looking father/daughter scene in a secret room at Gerard’s house (above). But then it quickly ramped back up from there, and I was left weary and annoyed by the end.

Geraldine Chaplin, sailing safely above it all:

Each scene (and the definition of a scene ranged from a single spoken sentence to a 6-8 minute stretch) is followed by complex music over a dark screen with falling snow, the snow sometimes thick and heavy, sometimes falling at different angles or drifting sparsely or entirely absent. Katy liked the movie but disapproved of the unhappy ending and the snow scenes. I loved the whole thing, am thinking of extracting the snow music and burning a CD.

The final Resnais film with Jean Gruault, writer of Mon Oncle d’Amerique and La Vie est un roman. Scientist Elizabeth (Sabine Azéma – I was recently loving her in Wild Grass and she’s just as great here) is the new girlfriend (2 months) of archaeologist Simon (Pierre Arditi of Not on the Lips, Coeurs). He gets checkups and is found to be in perfect health, yet he experiences fainting spells, possibly heart attacks, and at the beginning of the movie he’s declared dead by family doctor Jean Dasté (L’Atalante star, also of The War Is Over), who is embarrassed that Simon awakens a few minutes later.

Their good love/hate friends (André Dussollier – in Love on the Ground the same year, hard to recognize at first without his white hair – and Fanny Ardant – I recognized her from La Vie est un roman and Katy from 8 Women) both work in the church, and Simon is a fervent nonbeliever. Now that they have reason to be talking about life and death, suicide and resurrection, there’s much heated disagreement, then the two try again to comfort Elizabeth after Simon dies (again) from his mysterious ailment. Has a harsh but beautiful ending.

Grunes, always succinct:

Resnais tweaks Time in L’amour à mort. A genetic botanist, Elisabeth works toward the future; an archaeologist, Simon digs into the past. … Sometimes the inserts are only blackness, and sometimes the inserts are so frequent that the human drama seems what’s inserted. … As Simon dies again Elisabeth promises to join him. They already seem a fully meshed couple; the Martignacs, an unmeshed one. Resnais’s final shots suggest that the film has always really been about the Martignacs.

Except for Sabine’s horrid black coat, there’s no infernal fashion or general early-80’s ugliness, but then again, this is set in the countryside. I suppose all the garish proto-punks were confined to Paris at the time.

J. Reichert in Reverse Shot described it best: “The characters’ constant behavioral irrationality makes the first half of Wild Grass a frustrating watch, but these rougher waters, in which Resnais schizophrenically navigates through genres (thriller, romance, comedy), eventually calm somewhat and the film enters into a groove where possibilities become expansive and the discontinuity becomes the subject in itself.”

Halfway through the movie, it became definitely better than Private Fears and even Not on the Lips. Maybe it’s because Resnais deviated from the novel here, allowed improvisation to shape the script, and reportedly based his humor on Curb Your Enthusiasm. It felt a hundred times more free than those previous two movies – especially over Not on the Lips, which felt like it was being performed by ancient ghosts locked in the same performance for eons (hence the fading-out as they walked offstage). Not sure that I approve of the plane crash idea, and I already know I was paying attention to some of the wrong things so will have to watch it again, but that point halfway through when I realized that the irrationality of the lead characters has spread virus-like into the rest of the movie was my most thrilling moment in theaters this year.

Resnais was making art shorts a decade before the official birth of the French New Wave, building up to his mindblowing first three features by practicing his filmmaking, not just by writing and dreaming. Le Chant du styrene and Toute la memoire du monde are both wonderful, and the latter looks forward to the themes and camera work of Last Year at Marienbad. Finally got my hands on some earlier shorts with subtitles, very exciting.

Van Gogh (1948)

This and Paul Gaugin tell abridged life stories of the artists with imaginative narration, the visuals composed solely of the artists’ works, using camera movement, zooms, fades and a musical cutting rhythm. Both artists lived in Paris but moved away, and worked over the same period of time (in fact, they knew each other).

On Van Gogh: “He was a preacher, but he preached badly. The violence of his faith frightened even the faithful. It was in the process of trying to find a way to express his love for mankind that he discovered himself to be a painter.” The film gets great mileage out of the artist’s descent into madness. Katy points out that the sunflowers lose some of their power captured in a black-and-white film.

image

Little about this online, besides that it won an Oscar. Auteurs: “The 1948 piece Van Gogh proved so successful in its original 16 mm form that it was subsequently remade in 35 mm, winning a prize at the Venice Film Festival as well as an Academy Award.” It’s also the earliest listed Resnais film that I’ve ever seen anyone mention, although an article by Rhys Hughes confirms the earlier shorts exist.

E. Wilson in her Resnais book:
“Resnais’s aim is not merely to use Van Gogh’s art as material evidence, substituting paintings for snapshots of the artist’s life; more subtly he uses the paintings to show us the world apparently as Van Gogh saw it, to show us not merely the object world of nineteenth-century Holland and France, but to conjure the subjective images of that world perceived by the artist and captured by him on canvas. Resnais’s investigation in the film is not merely art historical therefore: he seeks already, as he will in his later films, to reveal the work and process of the imagination, the shots of reality that we view, distorted, in our mind’s eye.”

Paul Gaugin (1950)

The opening narration summarizes: “A bank employee and head of family, well-to-do, middle-aged, comfortable, discovers that he has been lying to himself. He wants, indeed he must paint. From that point on, he devotes himself exclusively to painting, and after twenty years of poverty dies alone.”

Starts in 1883, just like the previous film. Instead of poor and insane, Gaugin ends up poor and sick in Tahiti, painting shirtless native women. The commentary on Van Gogh was written by co-producers Robert Hessens and Gaston Diehl, but this one is taken from Gaugin’s own writings. Produced by Pierre Braunberger, who assisted early works by Renoir (Charleston, La Chienne) and Truffaut/Godard, ending up with Terayama Shuji of all the weird people. I wish they’d done a Pierre-Auguste Renoir film in this series.

image

Maybe I didn’t like this as much as Van Gogh because I don’t like the artwork as much, didn’t figure out the painter’s style, or maybe because it seems a rerun of the previous film (artist starts painting, gets obsessive, flees the city, goes poor/mad). E. Wilson, the biography author, agrees and spends more pages discussing Guernica (1950) instead. She calls this “a largely pictorial film by contrast,” points out that in Statues he would be “more self-conscious about self/other relations, colonial and post-colonial tensions.”

Statues Also Die (1952)

I’ve watched this before, but without subtitles. It is immensely improved when I understand the commentary – not that the shots and editing are anything short of excellent, but the movie is making all sorts of points about images, history, culture and colonialism which are sort of essential.

image

Forbak is going to build a pleasure palace but WWI interferes and his girl marries another guy. When he opens his castle, diminished from its original plan, he invites all his friends to stay locked inside and drink a potion of forgetfulness, awakening to blissful ignorance and holding a chastely sensual orgy. For some reason Forbak’s sinister, wheelchair-bound father is pleased by all this. Forbak’s lost love Livia agrees to stay out of curiosity but doesn’t drink the potion, spying on the goings-on afterward, while her naive husband Raoul drinks and dies for reasons unknown halfway through the experiment.

Forbak casts a spell:
image

Sounds like another oddball movie along the lines of Je t’aime, je t’aime – but wait, there’s more! Decades later, present-day, the castle is being used as a progressive (read: new-agey) school under crabby headmistress Holberg, and the site of an educators’ conference. Local guy Robert throws toys around and acts like Natalie Portman when she’s doing something nobody has ever done before in Garden State, visitor Elizabeth acts the uptight moralist who believes in true love, Nora the confident modern woman and Walter the elder celebrity. The conference devolves into squabbling and the importance and methods of education becomes secondary to guessing who will hook up with whom (Nora bets Elizabeth falls for Robert, but Liz rides off with Walter in the end).

Robert and his son… and who’s that guy on the left? Big head, stiff hair… looks familiar.
image

Scenes alternate, with a wildcard movie thrown into the middle… Melies-tribute tableaux fantasy shots involving kings and monsters and children and swords, dwarfs and damsels in distress.

The king orders more people beheaded… note stingray at bottom. The same plaster stingrays are staggered up the walls in the present-day scenes within the castle.
image

Weird movie, puzzling but fully enjoyable. Possibly the turning-point movie where Resnais went from anguished memory-obsessed time-traveling Muriel mode to stagey comedic ensemble Not On The Lips mode. The musical thing started here for sure – there are singsongy intros and everyone seems about to burst into song, but they do not… and then finally Elizabeth relieves the musical tension with a couple full songs. For me it recalled Rivette’s Love on the Ground more than any Resnais movie. Maybe it was the wacky architecture, the castle in which grown-ups perform a childish drama.

“The age of happiness is beginning,” they tell us, “Love! Happiness!” chanted forever. English title was “Life is a Bed of Roses” but the subtitles tell us “Life is a Fairy Tale” and the strict translation seems to be “Life is a Novel.” Closing lines: kids saying “as my father said, life isn’t a fairy tale.” Resnais’ only time with cinematographer Bruno Nuytten (who worked with Marguerite Duras and Claude Berri) and his second of three with writer Jean Gruault.

Bonheur:
image

Lots of familiar faces in this one! In the WWI-era scenes, idealist Ruggero Raimondi (so he’s not familiar, an opera singer) vies with Andre Dussollier (another link with Love on the Ground, later in Coeurs) for the hand of Fanny Ardant (star of two then-current Truffaut films).

Fanny Ardant and Andre Dussollier:
image

In present-day, Vittorio Gassman (then of a couple by Robert Altman, before that a hundred Italian films) is the bearded celeb Walter, Geraldine Chaplin (another Rivette/Altman connection), funny with her falsely “bad” French is Nora, Sabine Azéma (married redhead in Not On The Lips, caretaker/realtor in Coeurs) is timid Elizabeth, Pierre Arditi is the charming/ridiculous Robert and Robert Manuel (in Rififi back in the day) is the group organizer.

Walter… and there’s that guy again on the left:
image

Resnais:

The theme of the film is “Can we create happiness for ourselves without hurting others?” It isn’t easy. The second theme, even though it’s bad to have two in a story, is “Are there really any grown-ups?”

Dying mother in demonland performs one last song:
image

Stylus:

vacillates between three superficially unrelated vignettes, one set in medieval times, one in 1914, and one in the present day. The first has operatic tableaux in the place of a narrative; the second is a Poe-esque cautionary tale on the spiritual rebirth of high society, and the third an airy romantic farce. This is no Three Times: the three are linked by the locale of a castle, but otherwise thematic parallels are unclear—“love and happiness,” the casts in all three chant, but isn’t this a rather dime-store way of threading segments together?

Eager to discover why Resnais had employed such seemingly arbitrary affectations, I rushed home and googled the film, and was giddy upon the realization that the three parts were tributes to three of Resnais’ favorite French filmmakers: Georges Méliès, Marcel L’Herbier, and Eric Rohmer.

Fanny decides not to drink the kool-aid:
image

D. Ehrenstein:
“Rather than a novelist as was his practice in the past, Resnais worked with veteran scriptwriter Jean Grualt, whose credits include Jules and Jim, Les Carabiniers, The Story of Adele H, The Rise of Louis XIV and Paris Belongs to Us.”

Scale model vs. World War One:
image

Resnais at a film fest press conference:
“I never had the idea that the audience should go out of the theater scratching its head and asking questions about the meaning of the film … The important thing for us is that we wanted to make a comedy.” Also says the film expresses “‘variations on the theme of dominance.”

Robert’s springheaded son and his cronies:
image

NY Times

Although ”Life Is a Bed of Roses” has a deliberately distancing, non-realistic style, and although its uniquely skewed logic effectively prevents the audience from trying to regard it rationally, the film winds up more purely confounding than can have been intended. Arch little asides, like the abundant choral flourishes, cannot help but feel pointless without a clear sense of what they are departures from.

About the title, Mr. Resnais explained that ”Life Is a Novel” is its French equivalent. French parents, he said, often tell their children that ”life is not a novel,” in the same way that American parents declare ”life is not a bed of roses.”

Sabine Azéma as Elizabeth:
image

Cineaste calls it a “fascinating misfire” and says “it would take as long to summarize the plot(s) as it takes to watch the movie.”

DVD Talk (unless they’re quoting Kino) guesses at intentions:
“Through parody and “civilized” snobbism the French director also critiques the foundations of modern intellectualism, those who thrive on it.”

Pleasure blanket:
image

Films de France:
“Both Forbek and the seminar’s organisers are striving for similar things, the creation of a better world. Both are doomed to failure.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t steal your memories.”

Based on the behaviorist survival theories of Henri Laborit, playing himself, and written by Jean Gruault (who wrote for Truffaut and Rivette, including Paris nous appartient). One of the strangest, most off-putting movies I’ve seen by Resnais. It takes you through the lives and relationships of three characters, but without the subjective view of Providence or the single perspective of Je t’aime, je t’aime, and using the scientific mind theories to distance us from the characters, to think of them as lab animals (one recalls the white mouse from Je t’aime), like the Coens’ Burn After Reading but, of course, better. We’re back to the associative memory-editing of Muriel and Marienbad, appropriately as the narration explicitly tells us how memory works with our survival instincts.

Odd attempt to combine scientific thought with an entertaining story. Despite the lab comparisons breaking down our characters’ behavior, I didn’t feel completely detached from them or unsympathetic. In fact, maybe I was even more sympathetic, watching them fail and hurt each other while our scientist tells us their own lower instincts are responsible for the hurt. Besides the lab flashbacks, each main character has a favorite film actor, and when they’re having a mood, Resnais cuts in a short, dialogue-less associative clip of their hero portraying the same emotion.

image

Apparently this was supposed to be a documentary on Laborit, who said the only person who could make a successful documentary on his work would be Alain Resnais, who surprisingly agreed to do it, hiring Gruault to write the story around the theories. I would love to check out the half-hour interview with Gruault on the foreign DVD sometime.

Starts out by sketching the three protagonists’ life stories using stills a la La Jetee or Dog’s Dialogue, from birth through their career, then backs up to an earlier career stage and picks up with the story proper.

Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia of Duelle) had communist parents, defied them to become a stage actress. After starring in a successful play for a year, she started an affair with radio news reporter Jean Le Gall and started work at a textile company, eventually becoming a manager.

image

Jean (Roger Pierre), also a historian and a struggling author, had children with his wife Arlette (Truffaut star Nelly Borgeaud, the mysterious married woman in The Man Who Loved Women). He was born on a private island, to which he returns to clear his head or to impress girls.

image

René (Gerard Depardieu, who has come a long way since his Stavisky cameo) left his family farm to become an accountant. He works at the textile plant until there is a merger and he’s pitted against another accountant, an intimidating hyper-efficient guy (Gerard Darrieu, three shots down, who had small parts in Elevator to the Gallows, Z and The Elusive Corporal). Depardieu loses his post, is sent to a faraway town to manage another office, which separates him from his wife Thérèse (Marie Dubois, lead girl in Shoot the Piano Player, also in Malle’s The Thief) and makes him nervous all the time, not really being the managing type.

image

Jean has “kidney attacks,” lashing out at whoever is near him when he’s in pain. His wife Arlette visits Janine in secret and tells Janine she is dying as a (successful) scheme to get Jean back. Gerard can’t take the pressure of his new job and after a meeting with management (Janine herself) attempts suicide. All this is compared to studies of rats subjected to electric shocks, how they behave when escape is possible (escape!), when no escape is possible (depression) and when another rat is present (meaningless fighting). The movie’s scientist announces that the movie aims to show us how our brains work and cause negative behaviors so we can better understand ourselves and others. Ambitious movie!

image

Human behavioral analysis (and/or Gerard Depardieu) must’ve been in vogue in ’80 because this won major critics awards and a Cannes jury prize. Lost all six of its Cesar nominations to The Last Metro (also starring Gepardieu), and lost its writing oscar to Melvin and Howard.

image

I’m not clear who Zambeaux was, but he’s played by Pierre Arditi, Rossellini’s Blaise Pascal, who became a Resnais fave (he was the silver-haired main man on Not on the Lips and the bartender in Coeurs). Jean’s family friend Michel (who helps Jean lose his job) is Philippe Laudenbach, below, who played the war-scarred young man’s buddy in Muriel, later in Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours.

image

from Emma Wilson’s Resnais book:

Mon oncle d’Amérique seeks to set up mirroring patterns between art and science through its own internal reflections. The manner of presentation of Laborit mirrors that of the protagonists, despite his different status with relation to the film’s drama. Fusing fiction and documentary, Resnais opens space in the film for Laborit to offer short discourses on human behavior. We see him talking to camera, presenting his ideas as if he were in a documentary. The experimental basis of his work is reflected as Resnais illustrates Laborit’s ideas with close-up scenarios showing laboratory rats. The relation of these scenarios, and of Laborit’s discourses, to the action in the film as a whole is further suggested as in its late stages we see both Le Gall and Ragueneau in rat form, with rat faces, acting out their own dilemmas.

image

Houston, quoted by Wilson:

Not since Muriel, perhaps, has Resnais made a film structured for such precise, delicate and sympathetic effects; and it may not be coincidental that this is also the first film he has made for many years, really since Muriel, which is wholly French and of the present.

image

Grunes:

The title refers to an illusory ideal of happiness. What one of the characters says: “America doesn’t exist. I know; I lived there.”

image

Interesting, very good movie but I didn’t love it as much as everyone else seems to. Swept the Cesar awards in non-acting categories (a war film called Le Crabe-Tambour picked up the rest). I’ll bet Dennis Potter enjoyed it, too.

Come to think of it, looking over my screenshots a few weeks after writing the above paragraph, this was a damned complicated movie, and showed more imagination than Je t’aime, je t’aime. Definitely have to see again (and maybe again).

image

A writer (John Gielgud who, at 73, still had 60-some movies left in him over the next two decades) lives alone (with servants) in his big old house (“Providence”), spends the first two thirds of the movie dreaming up sordid lives for his family members, including his late wife (Elaine Stritch, lately in Romance & Cigarettes), his astro-scientist son (David Warner of Time Bandits), his lawyer son (Dirk Bogarde of The Servant and a bunch of Visconti films) and the lawyer’s wife (Ellen Burstyn of The Exorcist). He re-casts them, giving the lawyer and wife a bitter, joyless marriage, having them hold affairs with the other two. Stritch becomes an older woman with a terminal illness and Warner becomes a free man unsuccessfully prosecuted for murder. Scenes are re-written halfway through – Gielgud’s voice will narrate the action, then rethink things and suddenly characters will leave the scene or change their mind or the whole thing will start over with a different ending. So very Resnais-like, eh? Meanwhile, the writer himself is stumbling around the house at night, drinking, shitting, falling down, breaking things and griping about his ill health.

In the morning, he’s outside, it’s his 78th birthday, and his two sons and the lawyer’s lovely wife have a happy family visit, with dinner and gifts and happy memories. There’s a little bitterness, mentioning the writer’s wife who killed herself after diagnosed with a fatal disease, but overall it’s happy and serene, leaving us to wonder how much of the family problems and awful behavior from the first half of the movie were completely invented by the writer, and how much is actually there under the surface.

image

I’d thought I would enjoy six-time oscar-nominee Ellen Burstyn’s performance more, but maybe it suffered a bit from having just watched Rivette’s ladies in Love on the Ground – she seemed like the weakest link here, speaking as if she’d just received a script. Watching with headphones, the sound mix wasn’t so good either, but then neither was the quality of my downloaded movie very good, so this wasn’t optimal viewing experience. Liked the movie, fun to watch a bitter old man provide amused commentary on his own nightmares and imaginations, just didn’t blow me away.

Denis Lawson, who played the imaginary footballer (David Warner’s brother), appeared later the same year as Wedge Antilles in Star Wars, the film that helped decimate the world market for fancypants French films such as this one. In 1977 subtitles hadn’t been invented yet, so those watching in France heard the dubbed-in voices of actors Claude Dauphin (Le Plaisir), Francois Perier (Stavisky), Nelly Borgeaud (Mon oncle d’Amérique) and Gerard Depardieu.

image

Gielgud speaks the director’s thoughts: “It’s been said about my work that the search for style has often resulted in a want of feeling. However I’d put it another way, I’d say that style is feeling, in its most elegant and economic expression.”

Some woman wrote an article arguing that the ending is a dream also, but I’d have to pay $12 to read the full thing online.

There are weird flashes to military police and concentration camps, maybe explained by this American Cinematheque quote: “A fascinating visual tour de force exploring the creative process, offset by references to the nightmarish political crackdown in Chile in the late 1970’s.”

Ellen Burstyn:
image

V. Canby for NY Times did not like it: “The old man, it’s soon obvious, has imposed on these perfectly decent folk all of his own fears and guilts about a lifetime spent in philandering, selfishness, disinterest in his family, while he enjoyed a reputation as a writer he never really deserved. The structure is complicated but sadly un-complex.”

J. Travers on the ending: “Yet there is something about this Resnais-esque view of Paradise that is even more unsettling than the Hell we have just experienced. Which of these two interpretations paints the more accurate picture of the world in which we live? Can we take seriously the saccharine-doused scene of marital fidelity, brotherly friendship and sweet father-son love? Isn’t it more believable that the two sons would be rivals, that the elder son would have a mistress and would bitterly resent his father’s slow and demeaning death? Surely the world shown to us in the first part of the film, the world apparently belonging in the mind of a solitary writer, is the world that is nearer to our own, a far more accurate portrayal of human nature? The second world, of calm, family harmony and stability, is surely an illusion, a distorted memory of a past that never was, could never have been. Which reality do we believe?”

image