Priced to Own: Alain Resnais Is Not Dead, or Even Resting

04/28/2009 3:55 PM |

KimStim and Kino are shedding much needed (and highly desired) light on the career of French auteur Alain Resnais by making a quartet of his 1980s movies available on home video for the first time. Known primarily for a pair of arthouse classics, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and the short concentration camp documentary Night and Fog (1954), Resnais’s filmography is spread out over the course of 70+ years — and the octogenarian auteur’s latest film is set to premier at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But while most of us have to wait for Les herbes folles until it screens over here (a New York Film Festival hopeful?), in the meantime we have these four 80s flicks to remind us of his singularly poetic sensibility.

Life is a Bed of Roses (La vie est un roman) (1983) is an ode to imagination — a skillful and playful interweaving of three story lines centered around a half-finished castle in the French countryside. In the years following World War I, a monomaniacal aristocrat attempts to create a utopia of harmony and bliss; in present day, a group of teachers convene to discuss how to best develop a child’s imagination; and in a fantasy world only visible to the kids, medieval knights fight to restore happiness to the world. Resnais’ whimsical pacing reaches musical heights: like the music of Charles Ives, it’s a film of many identities — farce and philosophy, utopia and distopia, joy and sorrow — which jump out at you like mischievous children hiding behind stones, reveling in their ability to throw you off balance. And while the cast boasts some big names — Vittorio Gassman (star of Italian classics such as Big Deal on Madonna Street), Geraldine Chaplin and Fanny Ardant — the standout is Pierre Arditti, whose impromptu flights of fancy and gleeful disregard for conformity seem to embody all the best qualities of the film itself.

Arditti stars in two other films in the box set: Love Unto Death (L’amour à mort) (1984) and Mélo (1986). Both show the director’s penchant for theatricality, but also his ability to transcend that descriptor. In the former film, after being declared clinically dead, Arditti suddenly springs back to life. At first it brings newfound intensity to his relationship with Sabine Azema, but ultimately this “life after death” sends Arditti into a severe spiritual crisis.

The two actors were paired once again in Mélo, about a pianist (Azema) who cheats on her husband (Arditti) with virtuoso violinist (André Dussollier, another Resnais regular). By using languorous takes and wider shots, Resnais privileges his actors and gives them the time and space to fully embody their characters. The ensemble performances in both films are near flawless, and contain the searing emotional insight Resnais is known for.

Rounding out the set is Resnais’ fifth and final film of the 1980s, the eccentric cultural satire I Want to Go Home (Je veux rentrer à la maison) (1989). Bronx native and Broadway lyricist Adolph Green starts as Joey Wellman, an American cartoonist who reluctantly accepts an invitation to Paris to be honored for his life’s work, in the hopes of reconnecting with his estranged Francophile daughter (Laura Benson). She, meanwhile, hates her father’s work but is ga-ga over her professor (Gerard Depardieu), who keeps skipping their appointments. Depardieu, of course, is in love with her father’s work, and all of them wind up at a costume party at a country estate where everything goes awry. Written by Jules Feiffer, I Want to Go Home is a bit heavy-handed with cultural clichés at points, but Resnais’ zany side is an absolute delight.

In addition to the pristine transfers, three of the films include recent interviews with producer Marin Karmitz and actor Arditti about production history. The real gem, however, is Resnais is a Bed of Roses, a documentary shot on the set of Life is a Bed of Roses and featuring comments by Resnais that are essential for fans of his work. “My films aren’t what they seem to be. I don’t do it on purpose.” Defying easy classification, each of the movies in this box set are proof of Resnais’ statement, and while he may humbly claim to not do it deliberately, we can only hope he continues to do so with his future films.

Also new to DVD this week:

Lambert Hillyer’s Barbara Frietchie (1924) (Televista, Region 1). Director Lambert Hillyer got his start directing silent Westerns for William S. Hart, including the now-classic The Toll Gate (1920), and became a prolific director of B-features and serials (including Batman) during the sound era. Set during the Civil War, Barbara Frietchie stars Florence Vidor (wife of director King Vidor) as a Southern Belle in love with a Union Soldier (Edmund Lowe).

Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Empire of Passion (1978) (Criterion, Region 1). Two of Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima’s most controversial films. In the Realm of the Senses charts the dangerous trajectory of an affair between a married hotel owner and a maid, while Empire of Passion portrays the ghastly murder of a husband by his wife and her young lover. Thirty years after their premiere, both films continue to push the boundaries of on-screen eroticism.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life (The Decameron [1971], The Canterbury Tales [1972], and Arabian Nights [1974]) (British Film Institute, Blu-Ray Region ‘B’). Pasolini’s profane fascination with the sacred is perfectly suited to these classic texts overflowing with life’s earthly pleasures. From amorous nuns to demons defecating priests, Pasolini brings these folk tales to life with a fittingly unrefined (and uninhibited) sense of humor.