La Vie est un roman (1983, Alain Resnais)

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:

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.

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.

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.


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:

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:


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:


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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.”