There’s nothing quite like wanting to see a film for thirty years, finally getting a chance, and thinking it’s one of the worst things you’ve ever seen. I have a long and deep admiration for director Alain Resnais’s work, but it’s impossible to watch La Vie without asking “Just what were they thinking when they made this?”
The film juxtaposes three different “stories,” all set in a fairy-tale palace built in the Ardennes forest on the eve of World War I. The bulk of the film is contemporary, centered on a teachers’ conference taking place in the castle. The second story revolves around the efforts of the castle’s builder (Ruggero Raimondi) to help his friends to be “reborn.” That seems to require a mixture of opium, absinthe and an extended hot tub session. The third story is a fairy tale about a Good Prince overthrowing a Bad King in story-book settings (above). Oh yes, it’s also a “musical,” but while I once thought it a shame Resnais had never directed a musical, now I’m not so sure.
In all three stories, much is made of the redemptive power of “love,” and after the first half hour or so, when I realized this was going to be one of those movies that give the French a bad name, I had everything I could do not to turn off my DVD player. Things pick up a little, but only in the sense that the action becomes more conventional as various couples do and don’t form, thus rising to the level of the mundane.
Even the visual style of the film is nothing sensational. The 1920s scenes look like an Art Nouveau theme park, the contemporary moments are all too convincingly everyday, while the story-book portions are at about the level of a high school pageant—literally. To say that the film moves seamlessly between the stories would be a compliment except that it does so only because you’d have to be involved to be surprised by a change of location or period.
As for the actors, only Sabine Azéma, as the tortured neophyte teacher Elizabeth, makes any connection, probably because Elizabeth is the only “character” with any “characteristics” to speak of. The rest are mouthpieces for oh-so-worldly drivel, political poseurs or cardboard constructions that make you long for the abstractions in Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Raimondi is especially painful to watch.
Then there’s the title. I believe that “La vie est un roman” should translate as “Life is a novel.” For some reason, the film has always been promoted as “Life is a bed of roses,” and when the phrase occurs in the dialog, the subtitles read “Life is a fairy tale.” This admittedly trivial point indicates just how confused the whole enterprise is. La Vie est un Roman is neither a novel, a fairy-tale nor a bed of roses. It’s a mess.