BY BRIAN BELAK
Alain Resnais’ 1984 film Love Unto Death, showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago as part of a career retrospective for the late French filmmaker, features a title that reveals the film’s plot rather plainly. This is a love story between a man and a woman, Simon Roche and Elisabeth Sutter, and at least one of them is going to die.
To drive that last point home, the film opens with Simon’s death immediately. Elisabeth is shown in shock watching her lover die. A doctor is called in, and the death is declared official. Elisabeth begins to mourn.
However, as Elisabeth is downstairs, alone, Simon descends, appearing as if in perfect health (which the same doctor later declares he actually is), and comments on the sleep he just awoke from. Confused yet overjoyed, Elisabeth takes him in her arms, and the couple embraces.
Love Unto Death never makes much of an attempt to explain these strange circumstances, yet Simon’s “resurrection” becomes the major theme of the film from then on. At first he declares himself ready to live life for the first time, and he and Elisbeth begin making grandiose plans to travel the world and see everything he would have missed had he actually died. As the film progresses, however, Simon slowly becomes more and more obsessed with the fleeting images he witnessed on the other side and tries to recapture that experience of death.
Rather than attempt to show what Simon witnessed when he died, Resnais brilliantly keeps that imagery in the abstract. Starting after Simon’s death and continuing throughout the rest of the film, Resnais intercuts a strange interlude between each scene that shows a black screen with white flakes – possibly snow, but never rigidly defined – accompanied by a tremendous score full of twisting violins from German composer Hans Werner Henze.
Because the amount of time between each interlude can be anywhere from two seconds to six minutes, this allows Resnais to use them to set the pace and mood of his film. The concept of death continually haunts Simon and Elisabeth, and the interludes never let the viewer forget this fact. On the other hand, the flakes themselves seem to represent some kind of life, for when Simon actually dies later in the film, the ensuing sequence of Elisabeth’s mourning is rapidly intercut with wholly black interludes.
It is worth noting that until the very last shot of the film, no music plays over the lives of Simon and Elisabeth, firmly establishing the black snow space of Henze’s score to be distantly removed from the film’s world, just like the after-life is a strange, unfathomable space. Simon does seem to remember at least a small part of the music he heard when he first died, and he plays a little on the piano, but his attempts are fleeting.
While Simon is becoming obsessed with the afterlife, it is really Elisabeth’s reactions and love for him that drive the film forward. Although they have only been together for two months, she promises never to leave his side, so when he actually dies later, she feels as if she has no choice but to kill herself to join him. Their friends, minister husband and wife duo Jérôme and Judith Martignac, try to stop her, folding it into a film-long discussion about different types of love: eros, or possessive love, and agape, or selfless love.
When Love Unto Death ends, it is with little resolution. Although it is implied that Jérôme and Judith have let Elisabeth do as she wants, this is never confirmed. Instead, the film ends as it begun, with a sweeping camera movement though the trees outside of Simon and Elisabeth’s home, though this time with Henze’s score accompanying it. This has been a story of a love that burned passionately, but then burned out. A love through to death.
For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.