La vie est un roman (1983) opens in 1914, just before the outbreak of WWI. Count Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) has assembled his closest friends, a collective of France’s most esteemed aristocracy, for the dedication of his proposed utopian city that he calls “The City Of Happiness” to his fiancé Livia (Fanny Ardant). As Forbek’s friends begin to applaud, the camera takes the viewer into the model of this proposed paradise. As this tracking shot of “The City Of Happiness” continues, the background fades to black, and then erupts in bright flames and explosions as the Great War desolates the land. Then there is a cut to a shot, which evokes Arthurian legends in which a cloaked handmaiden escorts an infant child, presumably the heir to the throne, from a castle laid siege. This sequence continues as the maiden emerges from a secret passage out of a tree in the midst of a forest. As the maiden exits the frame, a car drives by in the distance, introducing a third time period as well as a narrative, though this time in a contemporary France. This will remain the structure of the film, a triptych of narrative and location concerned with exploring not only the imaginative history of “The City Of Happiness”, but also the basis of the condition that society has defined as happiness itself.
La vie est un roman is the second film Alain Resnais directed from a script by Jean Gruault, following up the critically acclaimed film of Henri Laborit’s life Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980). Stylistically, La vie est un roman is a return to philosophical debate in the narrative form, though this time in the genre of the musical. Like all good musicals, La vie est un roman relegates the breaking out into song to moments of personal revelation and emotional duress. Resnais sees to it that the visual component of the cinematic dialect of musicals is uncharacteristically underplayed, preferring static wide shots to the boisterous camera moves of either Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli. Even the close-ups of characters in song are static, and devoid of any and all traces of choreography. This unusual tactic immediately repels the audience, reminding the viewer that the world of La vie est un roman is as fictitious as it is physically two-dimensional. The result is unpredictable, but it could be construed that by removing the viewer temporarily from the narrative of the film serves the purpose of a catalyst designed to stimulate an objective reading of the lyrics sung, which in most cases convey the thesis of a scene or the illuminating of a suspected subtext.
The visual dialogue of La vie est un roman is even more complex. The Romantic medieval section of the film is rich in cinematic and painterly quotations, utilizing small sets with matte paintings in both the foreground and background, lending these scenes, where there is undoubtedly singing in a Wagnerian fashion, the artifice of live theatre. Fantasy is the rule of the day, following a trend of post-modern films whose sense of the fantastic and concerns with the classical are derivative, visually speaking, of Fritz Lang’s epic Die Nibelungen (1924). Resnais’ simplistic staging of his fantasy sequences negate the gravitas of these post-modern fantasy films, be it Eric Rohmer’s Percival le Gallois (1978) or Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Winifried Wagner und die Geschichte des Hauses Wahnfried von 1914-1975 (1975), evoking simultaneously the Czech Fairytale films of the previous decade.
Forbek’s portion of the film, set in the twenties, makes a number of references both in terms of narrative, set design, and costume design to the serials of Louis Feuillade [Fantomas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915)]. Resnais’ purpose in this is clear; for similar to his design of musical sequences, Resnais insists that the audience immediately recognizes and confronts their respective assumptions pertaining to the mechanisms of a particular genre. By alluding to Feuillade’s films Resnais guarantees that the audience will invest their suspension of disbelief into a familiar world, albeit a fictitious one. The tropes of Feuillade’s serials also serve as signifiers to a few stylistic expectations on the part of the audience, primarily with the melodramatic and Gothic qualities of the genre.
In juxtaposition to these more fantastic elements is the seemingly realist world of contemporary France. Of course this reality, despite the modern wardrobe and technology, inhabits the same space as Forbek’s narrative. This section of the film is set in “The City Of Happiness”, now a school whose primary objective is to educate children via the children’s own imaginative powers. At the moment the narrative in this section of the film begins, attendees of a conference on imagination in education are beginning to arrive at “The City Of Happiness”. The realistic world of contemporary France links to the other narratives not just spatially, as in the case of Forbek’s narrative, but physically. On several occasions the children at the school will run or dance through a scene focused on the adult characters and the camera will follow them, cutting to a match on action in the Romantic world of Arthurian legend, where the children quickly exit frame. This tactic links the artifice of the two fantasies discussed above with the more realistic primary narrative, equating all three equally as fantastic inventions of the cinema. The other equalizer being, of course, the musical element prevalent in all three narratives.
The medieval portions of La vie est un roman are the most simplistic. Visually, the camera is static in every shot of these sequences. In terms of narrative, detail and development are hardly needed because simple signifiers will do. The narrative tells of a King sent into hiding as a child until he reaches adulthood. At which time he becomes a great warrior, slaying first a lizard creature and then reclaiming his throne from a would be King by leading a peasant revolt. At which time the rightful King and hero of this narrative marries a princess, is crowned, and declares to all of his subjects that the “age of happiness” has indeed arrived. This is a very simplistic fairytale meant to suggest the crux of all legends in Western culture; freedom is happiness. By restricting this portion of the film to a two-dimensional narrative, La vie est un roman is able to pinpoint a primal understanding in mankind and therefore in the audience that will contrast with the more complex definitions of happiness that the films other two narratives suggest.
Count Forbek’s narrative centers around his megalomaniac aspirations to achieve utopia after the architect of his “City Of Happiness” is killed in the trenches of WWI and his lover Livia has married another. Still determined, Forbek completes as much of his “City Of Happiness” as his money will allow, inviting his remaining friends, including Livia and her husband, to come live with him once it is completed. Upon the arrival of Forbek’s guests, he makes a strange proposal. Forbek appeals to his friends to undergo a transformation that will return their psyches to infancy so that they may experience only those stimuli that approach “true happiness”. Forbek reveals that his intention is to first rid his friends of all sensations of pain, then, he intends to unleash his procedure onto the world. Forbek’s process is made up of a pulpy mixture of Eastern mysticism and Jungian psychology, which, keeping with the genre, proves lethal to one of those undergoing the process. However, unbeknownst to Forbek, Livia never drank her potion and has retained her adult consciousness. Once she is aware that the guest who has died is her husband, Livia attempts to rescue her friends, but fails, leaving her to confront Forbek. It is in this pivotal scene that Forbek reveals his intent to create a harmonious global state of “true happiness” to Livia. Livia, repulsed by this idea, maintains that it is her individuality and freedom that give her happiness, even if it comes at the expense of other’s misery. Enraged, Forbek attacks Livia, though she repulses his attack with a blow to his head.
The Forbek narrative complicates the final thesis of the medieval portion by raising the moral question if it is worthwhile to achieve happiness at the expense of others. This line of thinking is at the heart of the contemporary narrative centered at the conference for “Education Of The Imagination”, which for all purposes functions as a sort of dating game for the participants who continually pair off into couples. The concerns of this narrative are not as transparent as the previous two I have discussed. Firstly, there is the question of imagination as a means to happiness, the act of retreating into one’s intellect to escape the pain of reality. This concept is epitomized by the character Elisabeth (Sabine Azema), who, having recently lost both of her parents and a lover of two years, retreats into the romantic fantasies of a young girl. She directs these imaginative fantasies first onto Robert (Pierre Arditi) and then Walter Guarini (Vittorio Gassman). In the end, she selects Walter as the manifestation of her romantic delusions, primarily because of his romantic nature, though that has already been proven to be nothing more than a means to an end for him.
Elisabeth is at the center of another ideology; is it acceptable to give a physical life to one’s imagined happiness? This concept is first breached when she presents a model, much as Forbek did, of her student’s idea of an ideal school, which is as much a theme park as it is a museum. In her presentation of this model, Elisabeth sings of love, freedom, and individual growth. The conference reacts in pandemonium, chastising Elisabeth and arguing that by granting a physical reality to something imagined, imagination stifles, falters, and ceases. This counter argument cuts to the heart of Elisabeth’s romantic projections onto Walter as well as the career dilemma of Robert, who decides after Elisabeth’s presentation to quit being a teacher and become a clown. For like Elisabeth, Robert, having realized his imagined happiness as a teacher, has become unhappy (though in Elisabeth’s case she presumably drifts from long term relationship to another).
Wish fulfillment and the means be which it is achieved provide the fundamental thesis of the contemporary narrative of La vie est un roman. Resnais makes it clear that within a society it is impossible for the collective whole to find happiness, just as it isn’t always possible for one to be happy without others paying a price, even if it be a small one. For Resnais, happiness is a limited experience, restricted to only a few moments. But it is clear that in Resnais’ mind, these moments comprise a majority of who one is and in what direction one takes one’s life. It’s interesting, in terms of a sociological context, that at the time Alain Resnais made La vie est un roman France had entered into a new age of political conservatives. Resnais’ desire to make this film seems to be out of a desire to navigate a direction away from oppressive politics and the anonymity of popular conformity. Likewise, Resnais’ films had become widely criticized for not being optimistic enough or too opaque by many French film critics, indicating the kind of reception such ideas were to receive in France at the time. Regardless, in terms of style and content, La vie est un roman remains one of the most optimistic and escapist films in the long career of the late Alain Resnais.