Life Of Riley (Cert 12)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray Combo (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 108 minutes approx.
In 2012, legendary French director Alain Resnais made You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, a meta film about a group of actors beholden to a dead friend who recreate a stage play after watching a new film version of it, which was supposed to be his final film. It certainly had a valedictory feel about it, suggesting the then 89 year-old was about to wrap it up for one last time.
However Resnais wasn’t done after all as Life Of Riley appeared two years later, only his time it would be his swan song, with Resnais passing away just months after filming was completed, aged 91. Ironically with Riley being another film based around a stage play and an absent friend, one can feel a pattern emerging to infer how Resnais was thinking at this late stage of his life.
Based on a play by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (the third one to get the Resnais treatment after Smoking/No Smoking and Private Fears In Public Places), the story revolves around one George Riley who doesn’t not appear at all in the film. Instead we witness the reactions and how the breakdown of the relationships of his cadre of close friends is triggered by the news that George is terminally ill with just six months to live.
Learning first of the illness is doctor Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), subtly relaying the news to his wife Kathryn (Sabine Azéma) – a former flame of George’s – who works out that it is George and rushes to tell George’s oldest friend Jack (Michel Vuillermoz), whose wife Tamara (Caroline Silhol) is also an ex of George’s. Meanwhile George is pestering has been pestering his current, younger wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) to return to him, to the chagrin of her current beau, farmer Simeon (André Dussollier).
So far, so farcical. With George being the Macguffin of the story, it is up to the others to drive the action as they get together to find away to deal with their friend’s imminent passing. As it happens they are all part of an amateur dramatics group so their solution is to invite George to replace an actor who has dropped out. But as the women get together and reminisce about their prior lives with George, old infatuations resurface leading to some bitter infighting.
The meta theme continues as the couples rehearse their lines for the play, with the subject and the dialogue overlapping into their own lives, exacerbated by further revelations about George and the women as shared by the two husbands – Simeon is the least seen male and hardly interacts with the others – which come as a surprise to them, and more domestic arguments ensue.
As if this film wasn’t quirky enough, Resnais retains the play’s original English setting of York while the cast speak in their native French. And because the budget wouldn’t allow for full-scale replicas of British homes to be built, Resnais decided to embrace the stage format and everything was shot on internal stage sets with curtains painted to look like house fronts and doors. On first inspection this seems peculiar but knowing Resnais’s penchant for such cheekiness one accepts it without complaint.
With only two interior sets used, everything takes place in someone’s garden allowing for the lighting to remain consistent and given the cast plenty of room to move, although they remain largely sedentary as if it was a stage play. For external shots, cartoon renditions of the houses depict the change of location, interspersed with real life footage of a car journey of the Yorkshire roads for added effect.
The most idiosyncratic effect employed here is for the monologues, with the cast set in front of a green screen which has been replaced by an apparently hand drawn, black and white criss-cross pattern. If the attention was to ensure our focus was solely on the actor, it failed as the exact opposite is achieved, the effect being jarring and discordant against the vibrancy of the main sets.
Even with the replicated English stage settings and the direct translation and rhythm of Ayckbourn’s original text, this still feels resolutely French and that is not limited to the language of the spoken dialogue either. The pacing, the quirks of the characters, their energy (and occasional insouciance) and the esoteric use of bright colours leaves little of the story’s English origins buried beneath Resnais’s Gallic whimsy.
Being sourced from a stage play means plenty of dialogue with anything even remotely physical being at a premium, mostly Simeon kicking out at a tree stump in frustration. So, it is an act of providence that Resnais chose a cast of his most faithful actors, with Sandrine Kiberlain being the only newcomer to the group. Everyone brings their own personality to their role and seems very comfortable with Resnais’s style and intentions for this film, responding with fun and committed performances.
As this film comes to us under the unfortunate cloud of Resnais’s death, the question will be asked if it is fitting finale to and illustrious and prolific career. That of course will depend on how much of his work one has seen and how highly it is rated. What does become apparent is that there is no sign that this was the work of a 91 year-old man nor was Resnais resting on his laurels, demonstrated by the sheer verve and sardonic subject matter. In some ways the fact he leaves us on such a cheeky note suggests that if he knew his batteries had little charge left in them, he wasn’t going to waste it.
For the devoted Resnais fan, Life Of Riley will not seem in the same league as his classic New Wave output such as Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year At Marienbad but it feels less a final goodbye than You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet would have been in its place. But at least we can say farewell with smile on our faces.
Exclusive Video Interview with Critic and Scholar Geoffrey O’Brien
Rating – ***
Man In Black