Alain Resnais' La vie est un roman is another curious experiment from the restlessly inventive director, whose work has always been concerned with the nature of the mind and the imagination, with the fluid nature of reality, time and space under the influence of the human mind. This film, built on a script by Resnais' frequent collaborator Jean Gruault, weaves together three separate stories, three separate times and layers of reality, all unified by a shared location. A remote castle in the country, part of an unfinished project by the eccentric Count Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi), is the setting for three stories that together form a dazzling, ambiguous study of love, childhood, and imagination. Forbek builds his castle as a palace of happiness, but is interrupted by World War I, and after the war reunites his surviving friends on the half-completed grounds for a strange experiment. Later, in the 1980s, the castle has become a school, where a group of educators with unusual ideas are holding a conference on teaching methods. Running throughout both of these stories is a fragmentary, theatrically stylized ancient tale of a Robin Hood-like warrior of the people rescuing a damsel and leading a rebellion against a cruel king.
That fairy tale narrative often seems to emerge from the fertile imaginations of the children who run around the school's grounds, oblivious to the seriousness and fractiousness with which the adults approach the subject of guiding children. While the other two stories here are as real or as fake as any fictional narrative within a film, the heroic story is self-consciously presented as a work of imagination, taking place within a dreamlike, surrealistic, brightly artificial world that seems to intersect with the reality of the rest of the film at right angles. A woman carrying a baby, rescued from the vicious king, climbs out of a hidden passage in a tree as a car passes by on the nearby road, heading towards the school. As Resnais' camera pans to follow this woman from a fairy tale, the naturalistic scenery of the forest surrounding the school is interrupted by the intrusion of painted sets that look like animated images inserted into the real world, as jarring as the intersection of drawn and filmed worlds in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. This tale of knights and kings and monsters and beautiful damsels in distress is obviously the outgrowth of the children's imaginations, as they run around the school, mostly unheeded by the adults, their imaginations running wild, creating exciting scenes of battle as the hero vanquishes a humanoid lizard, saves the woman and wins her love, and sets off towards his destiny.
The other stories here are just as fictional and as artificial, even if they seem to have a mostly more "realistic" sensibility to the way they're filmed and presented. The World War I story is a lurid melodrama of rejected love and betrayal, as Forbek, after the war, finds that his fiancée Livia (Fanny Ardant) has left him for another man, their mutual friend Raoul (André Dussollier). Forbek invites the couple, along with the rest of their friends, back to his castle, where he proposes a strange experiment: he gives everyone a potion that sends them into a deep sleep, and begins what he calls a process of rebirth, brainwashing his guests into childlike, innocent new people of pure love and happiness. The modern-day story is similarly about the implausibility of romantic notions like "true love," which the naïve teacher Élisabeth (Sabine Azéma) believes in despite her own troubled history with romance. The more cynical Nora (Geraldine Chaplin) proposes a bet with her friend Claudine (Martine Kelly): that they can get the idealistic Élisabeth to fall in love with a man of their choosing — the goofy, childlike Robert (Pierre Arditi) — and thereby prove that "true love" is a construct, subject to manipulations and misdirections.
What Nora and Forbek have in common is a desire to shape reality to their own whims; they are the writers, the creators, of their own private stories, with real life as the raw material for their dramas and love stories, except that life isn't so malleable, and people seldom follow the predictable dramatic arcs of fictional characters. Forbek and Nora are, in their own ways, and for their own selfish reasons, trying to tell a story using other people, but their plans don't play out with the iconic narrative flow of the hero's legendary slaying of the evil king. This is the essence of the film, an inquiry into the relationship between reality and the art that supposedly mirrors it and influences it. Are the stories we tell reflections of reality? Or are they ideals that we then aim for in our lives, desperately and fruitlessly trying to make life conform to the logic of a story? Life might be a novel, a story, a fairy tale — or, as in the English version of the title, "a bed of roses" — but it's not necessarily the story we want or expect. As the audience, we might believe that the hero or heroine of the story has chosen incorrectly, that the happy ending is not quite the happy ending we thought was coming, that this isn't the love story we thought it was. Those who try to shape reality into a story of their choosing, meanwhile, find reality resisting, the branches of its stories extending in unpredictable directions, refusing to be trimmed into the neat shape of a novelistic structure.
At the same time, the film is very much shaped as a narrative, if not by Nora and Forbek, those would-be storytellers, then by Resnais and Gruault, whose control over this fictional construction purposefully frustrates the characters' illusions of control. Resnais continually announces the film's fictional nature by increasingly styling it as a musical comedy, having the characters break out into song. The music creeps into the film, at first appearing only sporadically in strange little fragments of singing, often with an offscreen voice repeating a phrase that had just been spoken, as though hinting at an alternative realization of this story in which the characters express themselves through song. The music takes over more frequently as the film goes along, occasionally interrupting the diegesis entirely for proper musical numbers, like Élisabeth's passionate defense of the concept of "true love" against the skepticism of Nora and Claudine. "The man I'll fall in love with isn't a bar of soap," she sings fiercely, angered by Nora's comparison of love to picking out household goods in a supermarket — she's romantic and sentimental, possessed by ideas handed down by romantic novels, grand romantic fictions, great love stories. Nora, in contrast, seizes on the comparison to commercial products, believing that love is as susceptible to marketing as anything else. In the end, neither of them is quite right: the reality isn't quite as romantic as Élisabeth thinks it is, which gives the happy ending a bittersweet undercurrent, but Nora is also proven wrong in her belief that people can be moved around and forced into playing roles in stories right out of fiction.
The film is thus both a tribute to the imagination and, perhaps, a consideration of its limits, of the failings and boundaries erected by human flaws and the pettiness of so many dreams and desires. It's all about the unfettered imagination of a child versus the limited, constricted perspective of an adult, locked into rigid ideologies and ideas about how things should be. When Élisabeth unveils the giant model landscape she uses as a teaching tool, after an initial period of awed murmuring, the other teachers in the audience begin criticizing her from their many perspectives — she's blocking children's imaginations, she's too neutral politically, she's not pragmatic enough — and the conference degenerates into splintered arguments and a chorus of chattering, singing voices. Only the children, and Robert with his childlike sense of imagination, ignore all this discord and begin happily playing with the model, exploring its layout and its interchangeable parts, eagerly constructing new combinations of modules. The conference attendees say they're only interested in the happiness and success of children, but their various theories and ideologies are developed seemingly without any regard for actual children, with little true understanding of their charges. At one point, one of the educators, who professes libertarian beliefs and claims to encourage freedom in the classroom, gets interrupted when one of the rambunctious kids runs into the room and throws a tomato at the teacher's face, expressing exactly the freedom that he says he wants.
This is another typically thought-provoking and challenging experiment from Resnais, whose formal experimentation has always mirrored his films' themes of artifice, memory, thought, history and time. Here, he weaves together three separate stories that seem to share only a common locale, but actually are linked, much more interestingly, in terms of Resnais' thematic focus on the nature of storytelling and its relationship with "reality." At the same time, La vie est un roman is also, itself, a grandly entertaining set of stories, from its theatrical legend to the lavish, elegant style and B-movie sci-fi trappings of the post-WWI story to the musical romance of the modern story. Resnais is deconstructing the form and purpose of narrative and fiction, but crucially, he's not denying the pleasure and the imaginative potential of these stories, which is perhaps why he ends the film by giving the last word to the playing children, singing a song that hints at an adult "understanding" that's always just out of reach, no matter what one's age is.