La vie est un roman (1983)


(director/writer: Alain Resnais; screenwriter: Jean Gruault; cinematographer: Bruno Nuytten; editor: Albert Jurgenson/Jean-Pierre Besnard; music: M. Philippe Gerard; cast: Vittorio Gassman (Walter Guarini), Ruggero Raimondi (Count Michel Forbek), Geraldine Chaplin (Nora Winkle), Fanny Ardant (Livia Cerasquier), Pierre Arditi (Robert Dufresne), Sabine Azema (Élisabeth Rousseau), Robert Manuel (Georges Leroux), Martine Kelly (Claudine Obertin), Samson Fainsilber (Zoltán Forbek), Véronique Silver (Nathalie Holberg), André Dussollier (Raoul), Guillaume Boisseau (Frédéric); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Philippe Dussart; MK2; 1983-France-French with English subtitles)
“Often very funny and witty.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Acclaimed unconventional French director Alain Resnais (“Mon Oncle d’Amérique”/”Mélo”/”Providence”), in one of his more accessible films, has a playful turn as he speculates in this delightful fantasy if ‘life is a fairy-tale’ or if ‘life is not a fairy-tale.’ It’s a Feuillade-like drama that has a good poke at spoofing idealists, intellectuals, the musical genre and children’s games. It comes to the sensible conclusion that happiness, ideas and imagination cannot be shoved down one’s throat even if done with the best of intentions. It concludes, however, that children have the best chance of living through their fantasies because they haven’t been spoiled yet by society. It’s capably written by Resnais and Jean Gruault (wrote Mon Oncle d’Amerique), and is divided into three episodes.

The non-linear pic, which veers back and forth between its three chapters, opens in 1914, in the beautiful Ardennes, where Count Michel Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi, opera singer), a wealthy aristocrat, aesthete and visionary, erects a Temple of Happiness to realize his utopian dream and invites, even though the castle is not quite finished, a select group of society friends to live with him in his fantasy castle. The pushy idealist also plans to marry there the lovely Livia (Fanny Ardant), not realizing she loves another guest named Raoul (André Dussollier). Those marriage plans never take place. When WW I breaks out, the count’s utopian plans are spoiled as his vast fortune dwindles and his guests are recruited in the army–where some die. But some five years later, in the 1920s, after the first live-in commune dispersed, the count invites the remaining guests back and gives each a drug potion that will make them forget their past and be “born anew.” Only Livia fails to take the potion. In the second chapter, we jump to modern times, some sixty years later in 1982, and the gothic castle has been converted to an experimental school called the Holberg Institute. It’s run by the idealistic educator Nathalie Holberg (Véronique Silver), who runs a progressive school designed to allow the children’s imagination to be stimulated through free play. During the summer break, with only a few children present, Holberg allows an educational seminar to take place that is run by the respected idealistic educator Georges Leroux (Robert Manuel) and whose theme is the ‘education of the imaginative.’ Other theorist guests includethe uptight public school teacher Élisabeth Rousseau (Sabine Azema), a romantic hoping to marry and who feels out of place in such a free-wheeling setting with such illustrious guests. The renown womanizing architect Walter Guarini (Vittorio Gassman), who says the castle looks like a pastry. The American anthropologist Nora Winkle (Geraldine Chaplin), who makes a wager that she can orchestrate a love affair between two of the other participants. Nora is best known as the lady who ”dared to masquerade as a man and work in minus-81-degree weather to write the revolutionary report ‘The Sexual Fantasies of James Bay Workmen.’ The charming Robert Dufresne (Pierre Arditi) who uses toys and frantic facial gestures to teach in the Holberg Institute, where’s he’s a respected educator. In the third chapter, the children remaining on the Holberg grounds go off to play by themselves their own imaginative fairytale games of knights and dragons, and seem to have more fun playing than the adults at the seminar who get into a heated debate about who has the better method of teaching.

The film is stylishly shot, visually appealing and plays better in part than as a whole, as it is often very funny and witty. As a whole, it has too many dense and arid moments that chip away at the lighthearted gay mood. It left me thinking this film is ‘no bed of roses,’ even if it’s somewhat entertaining and concludes with the sound message that living through a common ideal doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness.