Esoteric Musings in 'Love Unto Death' and 'Life is a Bed of Roses'

by Imran Khan

12 August 2015

These two films by Alain Resnais are moody, mysterious and stylish exercises in self-indulgence.
Love Unto Death (1984) 
cover art

Love Unto Death / Life is a Bed of Roses

Director: Alain Resnais
Cast: Fanny Ardant, Sabine Azéma, Geraldine Chaplin

US DVD: 21 Jul 2015

Moody, mysterious and deeply frustrating, the films of Alain Resnais have polarized audiences since his most bizarre and startling cinematic breakthrough, Last Year at Marienbad. Resnais’ narratives follow a highly disjointed road in which chronology and plot are abandoned for deeply esoteric musings on everything from sex to religion. Such is the case with Cohen Film’s double release of Love Unto Death and Life is a Bed of Roses, probably two of the late director’s most provocative explorations on the notions of death and creative potential.

Love Unto Death (1984) features Resnais regular Sabine Azéma, playing Elizabeth, a bourgeois wife whose husband dies one night only to mysteriously come back to life. Confused, panicked and highly intrigued, Elizabeth does her best to dismiss the bizarre incident as some kind of medical fluke. But her husband Simon (Pierre Arditi) begins to undergo a strange spiritual malaise. Simon confides in Elizabeth that he has seen something on the other side of death that continues to beckon to him, haunting his nights and days. Unsure of what to make of it, Elizabeth simply urges Simon to snap out of it. But when Simon confesses to suicidal thoughts, she learns such matters cannot easily be swept aside.

When Simon dies (again), Elizabeth is determined to follow him to the other side. This prompts a highly spiritual and religious debate with Elizabeth’s neighbours, a married couple played by Fanny Ardant and André Dussollier. Ideas of resurrection and the spiritual life are thrown around, causing a serious upheaval of festering emotions for all.   

An eerie meditation on the possibilities of an afterlife, Love Unto Death makes good use of the atmosphere that such a story would provide; there’s the serenely ominous score by Hans Werner Henze, which plays against the wintery interludes of a snow-filled sky. Resnais’ use of symbolism is well noted (red and black being two prominent colours representing love and death). But at times these explorations on the matters of suicide, resurrection and love seem forced.

As exceptional as actors Ardant and Dussollier are, their characters a reduced to mere props spouting religious philosophies that unnervingly strips them of any humanistic qualities, rendering them unsympathetic. Resnais cleverly presents Elizabeth’s increasing hysteria as a series a tableaus broken up by the interludes of winter sky and his compositions are indeed stylish, but these gimmicks are at the expense of his characters.

Life is a Bed of Roses (1983)

Life is a Bed of Roses (1983)

Life is a Bed of Roses (1983) proves even more frustrating. Intertwining three confusing threads of different stories, Resnais’ filmic thesis on history and the progression of culture and art often plays out painfully like bad performance art.

Once again, Ardant, Azéma and Arditi are on the scene to discuss the woes of love, this time equating their amorous hardships with the decline of artistic culture. The jumbled storyline follows a strange medieval battle, a utopian cult existing in 1920s France and a modern day French society of futurist intellectuals, all taking place within a peculiar looking castle at various points in history. There seems to be ideas of sublimation and reinvention floating deep beneath the narrative, but the various storylines never quite coalesce successfully. At many times, certain stylistic flashes of comic absurdity become highly exasperating and one is simply forced to sit back and accept the film for the exercise in self-indulgence that it is.

Resnais is desperately reaching here, achieving nowhere near the mammoth heights of Last Year at Marienbad and instead mining a brand of silly slapstick musical humour. While the musical numbers are ingeniously orchestrated, they further congest an already convoluted story that demands your steadfast focus, if only for the sake of grasping even the slightly clue of what the filmmaker means to communicate. The beautiful and sumptuous set decor offset the extremely unpleasant exchanges between characters.

Cohen Film’s transfer shows the films’ age. In many scenes there are heavy amounts of grain. But the contrast levels and colours are on point; colours glow healthily and for the most part, there are some nice textures and shades that provide strong black and white contrasts. Sound and dialogue are pleasingly sharp and come through clearly with no distortion. Both films are in French with optional English subtitles.

In terms of extras, each film features a commentary track with film historians discussing the finer points of these films and Resnais’ style. A liner booklet is supplied with the release but contains only a few film stills and no written essays on the film.

Resnais has done much better; his often surreal and disjointed way with a narrative has served him well in Last Year at Marienbad and the equally enigmatic Muriel. Here, his style and ideas don’t mesh very well and what is left are films that seem half-finished or, rather, underdeveloped. These two films, then, are for the adventurous sorts, who don’t mind walking away with little to take.

Love Unto Death / Life is a Bed of Roses

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