If death will always remain the artist's one inescapable subject, then Alain Resnais' L'Amour à Mort (Love Unto Death) takes us somewhat farther than most artworks by bringing us just past the brink of mortality, suggesting through both speech and abstract visuals what a hazy netherland between life and death might feel like. That the film is careful to call into question the actuality of this perceived afterlife doesn't diminish the power of its possibility, it simply represents a necessary concession from its firmly earthbound creators.
Following a brief tracking shot through a forest which establishes the film's principal setting as an isolated country house, Resnais confronts us immediately with the fact of death. The camera registers the panic-stricken face of Elisabeth (Sabine Azéma) who, we soon learn, has just watched her lover collapse. No sooner is the man, Simon (Pierre Arditi), pronounced dead then he returns both to life and perfect health. Determined to take advantage of his second life, he plans trips to America with Elisabeth and notes a heightened passion in their lovemaking, designated visually by garish red lighting during the sex scenes. But soon Simon becomes obsessed by the tantalizing glimpse of death he's received and it's not long before he suffers another fatal collapse, this time definitive, which causes Elisabeth to consider suicide in order to join her lover in the afterlife.
That Simon, an anthropologist, is essentially atheistic in his orientation seems to mark him as the ideal subject for mortal confrontation since he's not burdened by any of the doctrinaire blinders of his minister friend, Jérôme (André Dussollier), which would inevitably color his view of his experience and taint his report from the afterlife. Still, when we learn later of his lifelong obsession with mortality, we have to question how much of his alleged experience can be attributed to this desire for a beautiful death and entertain the possibility that, as Jérôme believes, Simon simply dreamed the entire encounter. But, the fact of his "resurrection" (a word used in the film with varying degrees of irony) certainly defies the explanations of both science and orthodox doctrine and grants Simon's report a certain authority which can't be so easily dismissed.
Either way, the film's representations of the experience of death take us well beyond the limits of what most films dealing with mortality are prepared to engage with. The verbal representation of this experience, Simon's relating of his encounter to Elisabeth, is given added force by Resnais' striking chiaroscuro framings. Cutting back and forth between the two lit faces emerging out of a near complete darkness, the director places the emphasis fully on eyes, mouth, lips as the characters negotiate their experience. As Simon speaks of a horrible coldness, followed by a crossing over and finally a feeling of great warmth and happiness, the close photography captures both his joy in the recollection and Elisabeth's sorrow at being separated from her lover by a gap that can only be bridged through death.
As striking as Simon's recounting of his encounter may be, Resnais understands that both words and concrete visual images can only go so far in depicting experiences beyond the usual capacities of human understanding. To this end, he punctuates the film with brief (2-10 second) interludes that provide an abstract correlative to Simon's conception of death. Consisting of a dark field of color (usually black, but sometimes lit dark blue) often streaked with white particles (stars? snow?) and accompanied by a slightly dissonant orchestral score, the latter perhaps suggesting the celestial music that Simon reported hearing when he died, these interludes, which Resnais employs as punctuation after particularly salient lines of dialogue, find the director grasping for (and achieving) a way of expressing visually a state of being that stubbornly resists all efforts at conventional expression.
The film's final third details Elisabeth's mental preparations as she resolves to commit suicide, thus "rejoining" Simon and fulfilling her deathbed promise to her lover. At first, Elisabeth's decision seems merely like the desperate act of a grief-stricken lover, who vainly grasps at the dubious prospect of some kind of unspecified cosmic reunion. But, as she hashes out her explanations to Jérôme and his less doctrinaire wife, Judith (Fanny Ardant), we can come to understand her decision not as an act of grief but one of hope. Although, she admits, she has no idea what to expect on the other side, she makes it clear she believes in the possibility of a literal reunion with Simon and that, either way, she'd rather attempt it than live without him. Although this may strike the viewer as silly romanticism (particularly since she's only known Simon for two months), I think we have to take her decision (and the possibility of a satisfying afterlife) seriously. As Judith points out, there are many different kinds of love and so there is nothing to suggest that Simon's and Elisabeth's brief, passionate affair is any less significant than Judith and Jérôme's sober ten year marriage. Then, the film has already suggested the very real possibility of an afterlife. Although we may have reason to doubt Simon's report, we certainly can't dismiss it out of hand. Ultimately, Judith characterizes Elisabeth's act as a courageous one and I think the film works best if we accept it as such. After all, despite Resnais' efforts to take us past the brink of mortality, he continually rubs up against that inevitable point beyond which further exploration becomes impossible. There remains a single way to achieve full understanding and the director's willingness to grant this knowledge to his central characters feels, under the circumstances, like an act of great generosity.