At a glance, Alain Resnais and Jean Gruault would appear to be incompatible collaborators. Gruault worked as a young writer with François Truffaut on Jules and Jim, and subsequently wrote four films for Truffaut during the 1970s, before scripting The Bronte Sisters with Andre Téchiné in 1979 and Mon Oncle d’Amérique with Resnais in 1980. Though Truffaut and Resnais are incomparable filmmakers given each of their disparate styles and thematic interests, Gruault’s pen works for each of them, which is attributable to the writer’s knack for conceiving fantastical circumstances concerning flesh-and-blood folk. After all, what is Jules and Jim if not a whimsical foray into the harsh realities of self-sacrifice during the throes of youthful passions? It’s a film that would be fantasy and escape were it not so intent upon locating how time’s passage doesn’t heal all wounds, but simply opens new ones. Adults are merely adolescents that have gotten bigger; it’s a point further reiterated by 1970’s Gruault-scripted, Truffaut-directed The Wild Child.
Children remain at the core of both Life Is a Bed of Roses and Love Unto Death, though nary a single child appears in the latter film. Nevertheless, its characters are constantly in a state of disbelief or, more to the point, playing pretend. When Simon (Pierre Arditi) appears to have died one evening, Elizabeth (Sabine Azéma), his short-time lover, is overcome with panic and grief, before suddenly realizing that Simon is actually alive and appears to be unharmed. She has no explanation for this; it seems Simon’s heart may have stopped, then started beating again. The specifics are unclear. Equally uncertain are the terms of their relationship, which is revealed to only be two months underway, though the pair acts as if they’re been together for years. Resnais poses these points indirectly; at least, there’s no character designed to provide the exposition up front. Yet neither is there a character of any sort truly in step with what’s unfolding. When the pair meets their close friends, both of whom are clerics, at an archeological dig site, one of them states, “You’re a weird couple.” Resnais might agree, but then the point seems to be that coupling, as an idea, is weird and forces its participants into time warp, where past and present bleed together.
Resnais uses an elliptical device that furthers this point; between each scene, he inserts a brief shot of a snowy night, though as the film progresses, the shots sometimes omit snow and are simply dark. The play with images standing in for the passage of time is direct allusion to Zorns Lemma, Hollis Frampton’s mathematical alphabet film, which ends with a couple walking off into a snow-covered terrain. Furthermore, Frampton uses childlike voiceovers to read bibilical text and complicated equations, something Resnais also underscores in Life Is a Bed of Roses, as children are constantly moving in and out of the frame, while the adults, who are supposedly more capable of governing themselves, do nothing but taint their environs. After all, the central of three separate timelines involves a gathering at a teacher’s convention being held in a castle, where Nora (Geraldine Chaplin) sparks some trouble when she makes a wager with a colleague that one of their peers will sleep with another before the conference is out.
These are some of the peppiest moments in Resnais’s entire oeuvre, sans a late-career foray into outright comedy. The structure, time jumping, and free-associating most closely resembles that of Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, though Resnais and Gruault’s work is decidedly less anarchic or madcap. Nevertheless, when characters break into song, it’s as if the influences shift from Buñuel to Jacques Demy, with the vibrant colors seemingly plucked straight from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Other influential directors like Georges Méliès, Marcel Herbier, or Eric Rohmer deserve citation here, but Demy’s work beckons to be more directly reconciled, especially considering the end of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, where the film’s lovers reveal, after being broken apart, that each of them has a child, one named François, the other Françoise. The moment is borderline surreal, not least because the names substantiate French idolatry. Resnais arrives at a similar conclusion, as three children sit in a tree; one says, “Life isn’t a fairy tale.” When another asks what that means, he replies, “We’ll know when we grow up.” The burden of time only ingratiates fantasy, so that even when adults eventually don suits and dresses, as they do in Last Year at Marienbad, they still only know how to engage in schoolyard activities, asking questions that have no answers and playing games that can’t be won.
Cohen brings these essential Alain Resnais films to vibrant life with stellar, HD transfers, though their work is ultimately less meticulous than one might hope. There are a number of scenes where scratches and frame defects are perceptible, especially with Love Unto Death, which is certainly the shabbier of the two in terms of image, though the color saturation and depth of field are commendable. There’s nothing particularly wrong with vibrancy or texture; on that front, Cohen continues their excellent work. But their inability to overhaul the print and make it new again places this work a tier below that consistently done by the Criterion Collection. Audio tracks on both films are full and boisterous, most notably in the musical scenes from Life Is a Bed of Roses
Each film is given identical treatment, with a feature commentary by Wade Major and Andy Klein, plus the films’ respective re-release trailers. Major and Klein do a number of commentaries for Cohen releases, but one may wish the company would switch things up a bit given these rather wayward entries, especially from Klein, who admits near the end of the Love Unto Death track that the film is "too deep" for him. In the prior 90 minutes, he explains (and restates several times) how, as an undergraduate, he thought Last Year at Marienbad was pretentious nonsense, and then suddenly realized on subsequent viewings in later years that it was a masterpiece. That’s hardly piercing insight. Klein also seems to favor trivia over analysis: He keeps asking, "Is this the only Resnais film where..." or "Do other Resnais films have…" without knowing the answers. Major, thankfully, is much more authoritative and capable, carrying the lion’s share of the analytical weight and offering perceptions that actually seem formulated prior to the recording.
This double-feature Blu-ray set of two essential Alain Resnais films from Cohen Media is light on meaningful supplements, but high on quality cinema.