Life Is a Bed of Roses
ften we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.
While I’m well aware that Time is Alain Resnais’ Big Theme, I was initially baffled by his 1983 feature, Life Is a Bed of Roses, which 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?—and we’re throttled from one to another in a variety of ways: sometimes characters from one era briefly scurry through another, and sometimes Resnais abruptly cuts. 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.
Giddy with confusion, that is. Resnais doing a tribute to Rohmer is a bit like David Bowie covering Paul Simon: here we have the boldest artist of his generation aping the most humble. In films like My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee, Rohmer presents us with a slightly imbalanced democracy: each shot is a measured response to the one preceding it. In contrast, Resnais’ films are battles, not discussions, and the camera frustrates the audience, rather than empathizing with its thirst for knowledge. Case in point: the holocaust documentary Night and Fog, which attempts to reconcile horrific archival footage with the prettiness of the post-war camps, to no avail.
What happens when a skeptic tackles tranquility? He makes it look dangerous. The present-day storyline, which takes up most of the running time, focuses on an education conference held amongst teachers and creative types pushing new methods in the technology-happy ‘80s. These are personalities one might find in one of Rohmer’s Moral Tales: self-effacing, beautiful Elizabeth (Sabine Azema), goofy, subtly affectionate Robert (Pierre Arditi), feisty, womanizing Walter (Vittorio Gassman), and assertive, promiscuous Nora (Geraldine Chaplin). They are Rohmer-like in that they are all mysterious: for her beauty, why is Elizabeth so shy? For his warmth, why does Robert affect silliness? But unlike Rohmer, Resnais does not explore these mysteries with any vigor. He instead transforms these characters’ self-presentations into a spectacle, into something big and profoundly dubious. Robert’s antics at the conference are incoherently silly—he acts more like children than for children—but in the next shot an aging schoolmaster defends his work as serious. Resnais doesn’t show us their audience, presumably baffled or curious, because we are the audience: his work remains theatrical in that it is the viewer’s responsibility to see through transparent charades. But in Rohmer’s work, characters see through each other. Rohmer told Cahiers du Cinema in a 1965 interview—prior to his greatest successes—that “what I would like to make is cinema where the camera is completely invisible. You can always make the camera less visible.” Resnais is the opposite kind of filmmaker: the position of the camera strives to galvanize the viewer first, tell a story second.
This leaves us to the other two segments, which I’m afraid I have less to say about. Resnais does succeed in defying contemporary thought in using static takes, like Méliès, in a purely functional manner: not to express anything in particular, but to enrapture his audience with primitive fantastical set design, artificial gas and a man in a lizard suit. Not having seen L’Herbier’s lamentably rare work, I can’t compare it with Resnais’ segment, in which mad count Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) attempts to transform his party guests into blithering zombies to the grief of his adulterous fiancée (Fanny Ardant), but it remains closest in spirit to Resnais’ work: it’s a fusion of a musical and a short story, overlaying monologues and intrigues against choirs and dances. Here, when a crowd collectively gasps in musical harmony, it is acceptable, because that harmony is held up against Forbek’s grandiose speeches; as the crowd sings, we watch the count passing by, looking irritated. L’Herbier’s cinema gives Resnais the most opportunity to be himself because it is mad, loose, self-contradictory. Rohmer may be the greater artist, but it speaks volumes of Resnais’ singular personality that, even working under the terms of one of cinema’s masters, he appears constricted.