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.”

Charles Farrell is Chico, an athiest who works in the Paris sewers (I’m not sure what he does down there – looks like he’s doing his laundry, or fishing rags from the water) and dreams of being a mighty street washer up on the surface. Janet Gaynor lives with her abusive sister, possibly both as prostitutes. As usual for the beginning of a Borzage movie, Something Good happens to the guy (he’s given a better job) while Something Bad happens to the girl (a rich uncle comes to take them in, asks if they’ve been “clean” and Janet answers no, so relatives leave and Janet’s sister tries to kill her). Chico saves her but gets himself in a pickle with a cop… he says she’s his wife, so now the cop will come by Chico’s house tomorrow to verify the story.

Standing in the gutter, looking at the stars:

What to do!? If you said “why doesn’t Janet stay at his house for a day” then you’re as smart as the screenwriter. Chico lives on the seventh floor, whose set is actually seven stories high, as noted by the outrageous vertical tracking shot following the pair up the stairs. There’s some business about who’s sleeping where and some talk about God, work, fear of heights and whether Chico is a very remarkable man (he is), and the next day he buys her a wedding dress.

A very remarkable man:

I don’t know how long afterwards (a day? a year?), war breaks out, and it breaks out in a hurry – Chico has about an hour to report to duty. The war lasts a few years, he and his street-washin’ buddy flamethrow some dudes, the local cabbie is roped into a huge cab-driven troop movement (which actually happened, and which Borzage recreated with either an awful lot of cars or a clever model).

Papa Boul and what’s left of his cab:

Chico is feared dead, so Janet’s admirer back home (not a slimy villain or anything, just a suave dude who likes her) is making his move when Chico bursts in, alive but blind and believing in God, for a happy-ish ending (he’s still blind).

Chuck on the stairwell:

The story doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a gorgeous movie. The street set (which looks familiarly like the one from Street Angel) and the apartment are wonderful, and the war is remarkably shot (dig the silhouette-soldier who attacks Chico).


Farrell and Gaynor are as good as in their other movies (well, maybe Gaynor has less to do here), and Gladys Brockwell (dead two years later after a car crash) shines as Gaynor’s whip-bearing sister. Simone Simon and James Stewart starred in a sound remake ten years later, which is not quite as highly regarded.

Gladys Brockwell:

AV Club: “The script comes from Eric Roth, who would probably by accused of borrowing too liberally from Forrest Gump if he hadn’t written that too.” Wow, dude also wrote that Eric Bana gambler love story I was just mocking yesterday, and my favorite film to hate, The Postman. No wonder writing seemed to be the weakness in this would-be-spectacular movie. Huge issues (hello, racism) were ignored, episodes (hello, Tilda Swinton) weren’t well integrated with the rest of the film, and Button ended up seeming like an unambitious blank who doesn’t do much with his so-called remarkable life.

Katy suggested the unambitious-blank part and some Forrest Gump comparisons, but I wonder if that wasn’t the point, to show a regular guy with parental issues who meets a girl, goes to war, has a kid, rambles around and never quite finds his place in the world, the whole aging-backwards thing being the only remarkable thing about him. That and the movie’s obsession with mortality make it a meaningful story about life and how to live it. Maybe we unrealistically expected Button to be some kinda sci-fi superhero, while the movie was trying to speak to us about life and death, love and loss, or maybe on Christmas day we weren’t in the mood for an extended monologue about mortality, but this came out feeling like a pretty alright movie, a tearjerker to be sure but maybe not the acclaimed masterpiece to which we’d been looking forward.

Pretty nice music by Alexandre Desplat was loud and fuckin’ clear, since 45 minutes before the end of the film our dialogue track almost entirely cut out leaving us with whispered words under a huge score… thanks heaps, Regal. At least we could still hear when we tried hard, since most of the audience was either heavily concentrating or fast asleep by then. Shot NOT by Fincher’s Zodiac guy, and boy am I relieved, cuz in the parking lot I was bemoaning the lack of surprise or interest in the camera setups (figuring the CG effects left no room for surprise), comparing it negatively to the immaculately-shot Milk, which we’d snuck into before our feature started… forgetting that the Zodiac guy actually shot Milk, and some nobody (the D.P. of the last M. McConaughey romance flick) shot The Ben Buttons, thus preserving my aesthetic intuitions.

So right, Ben kills his mom being born in New Orleans on the day WWI ends, is abandoned Penguin-style by his dad, discovered and raised by Queenie and (boyfriend?) Tizzy in an old folks’ home, where unsurprisingly, people die from time to time. Ben meets a girl who is not yet Cate Blanchett but one day will be. Ben, BTW, is incredibly old, confined to a wheelchair, then learns to walk with canes as he grows ever younger. He gets a job on a tugboat, has regular sex with married Tilda Swinton in a hotel, and helps in the WWII effort while Cate becomes a dancer with hip bohemian friends & spontaneous lovers. The time is not right for those two to get together, but one day after Cate’s career-destroying car accident the time is right and they do and are very happy and have a kid. Ben finds out that his real dad is Mr. Buttons, who dies and leaves Ben the button factory he ran. Also dying: war friends, Tizzy then Queenie. Ben is afraid when he grows too young he’ll be a burden (he is) so he leaves Cate and bums around the world instead. Interesting how as his brain becomes less developed and he gets smaller, it’s effectively alzheimer’s disease – he forgets more and reverts to childish behavior living in his childhood home. Cate’s daughter grows up, her “dad” dies, and while caring for her dying mom (still played by Cate, unrecognizably) the day before Hurricane Katrina hits, she learns the whole story in a huge framing device.

Brad Pitt, after a brief spell of manic energy in Burn After Reading, is back to his brooding-as-acting style, which should work just fine in next year’s Terence Malick picture with appropriate wistful voiceover. Cate is wonderful as fucking always – the acting highlight of the movie, she can do no wrong. Brad’s Coen-costar Tilda Swinton is fine with the tiny role she gets.

People I Thought I Should Have Recognized But Actually Shouldn’t Have include TV’s M. Etc. Ali as Tizzy, an otherwise uncredited actor as the African fella who takes young Ben to a brothel, Cap’n Mike: Jared Harris (Lady in the Water), and adoptive mom Taraji Henson (Talk To Me). People I Recognized But Didn’t Know From Where include Guy Ritchie action star Jason Flemyng as Mr. Button. People I Did Not Recognize At All include framing-story secret Button daughter Julia Ormond (Inland Empire), and People I Should Have Recognized But Somehow Missed include Elias Koteas as the blind clockmaker who kicks off the story.

Sure seems like a much more enjoyable movie the third time around. No need to keep the details and characters straight this time, just appreciate the look and the story and the excellence of the whole thing. In theaters I remember spending too much time reading subtitles and not enough time looking at the visuals. Looks disappointingly small and plain on TV, though. Katy seemed to like it.

Jan 2022: This was the second post on this blog – that’s a long time to go between viewings of this movie. I’d been wanting for months to rewatch it with Katy but finally watched alone the night Gaspard Ulliel died. There is a LOT of killing in this, maybe she’s not keen to see so many people shot and stabbed and blown to bits.