When first presented in the 2014 Berlinale, Life of Riley wasn't yet Alain Resnais' final film after a stellar career - though the question lingered often in the minds of assorted critics and observers, especially since its predecessor, 2012's You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, had also left the bittersweet taste of a testament. The lighter-hearted Life of Riley came across as an "appendix", a less mournful coda, and Mr. Resnais' death at 91 merely two weeks after its premiere in the Berlin competition, where it won the Alfred H. Bauer award for most innovative production, has only made it more so.
The third adaptation by the late director of a work by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn after Intimate Exchanges was made into the diptych Smoking/No Smoking and Private Fears in Public Places became Coeurs, Life of Riley is also the slightest and lightest of the three - though, again, it gave Mr. Resnais free rein to his provocative audiovisual sleight of hand. Everything in this tale of three rural couples thrown into disarray by the surprise announcement of a disease revolves around George Riley, the title character who is diagnosed at the beginning of the film with only a few months to live. However, George is never present, never seen, never heard throughout the entire length, though his every decision impacts the life of the three couples of friends and neighbours who are also nursing their own wounds. Tamara and Jack (Caroline Silhol and Michel Vuillermoz), though preparing for their daughter's birthday, are very clearly floating apart especially since he's taken up a mistress; Kathryn and Colin's (Sabine Azéma and Hippolyte Girardot) marriage is also in the doldrums; Monica, George's ex, has taken up with the kind but somewhat overwhelmed Simeon (Sandrine Kiberlain and André Dussollier).
The news becomes a catalyst for a round-robin of change and reevaluation between the three couples, with George being an absent but ever-present micro-manager of their lives as the three women find themselves gravitating towards him and the three men find themselves to be sidelined. Even seen before Mr. Resnais' death, it was hard to miss that George could be very easily construed as a metaphor for a film or stage director, a kindly demiurge throwing the dice from a safe distance and making sure people made course corrections in their busy lives. "Maybe he wanted us to stay young forever", says one of the women at some point, and if you add that to the genially boulevardier tone of this comedy of errors and to the celebratory aspect of its "live, drink and be merry" motto (expertly presented in its original French title), it suggests that was also Mr. Resnais' desire with this dinner mint of a movie.
Nevertheless, this is a Resnais film and as such it is also yet another of his playful visual experimentations: unlike the studio-bound realism of Smoking/No Smoking, we have here an avowed artificialism, with designer Jacques Saulnier going for a series of cleverly sketched sets that suggest "all the world's a stage and all of us merely players", and the film interrupted occasionally by Roy Lichtenstein-inspired solo close-ups of the six leads. The actors, in the time-honoured tradition of the director's ensemble casts, bite heartily into their characters and it's their emotion and commitment that turn the theatrical sets into a mere backdrop for people acting out their lives before an audience. It is one of those cases where it's the director's trademark that anchors the film, Mr. Resnais' constant, effortless inter-weaving of film and theatre hybridizing the forms into a sophisticated, constantly shifting, tongue-in-cheek construct. (The women are involved in a local theatre production where George is also taking a role, and at some point Monica says "next time we'll go to the movies".)
An openly minor yet still arresting work from a master filmmaker that couldn't simply do things in a linear way, Life of Riley playfully explored further his passions and obsessions without adding nothing much in the way of novelty. That it turned out to be Alain Resnais' farewell film gives it an added bitter-sweetness, and explains in retrospect the intimations of mortality Life of Riley gave out - but changes nothing in the film itself.
AIMER, BOIRE ET CHANTER
Cast Sabine Azéma, Sandrine Kiberlain, Caroline Silhol, André Dussollier, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz
Director Alain Resnais; screenwriters Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval and Jean-Marie Besset; based on the stage play Life of Riley by Alan Ayckbourn; cinematographer Dominique Boilleret (colour, widescreen); composer Mark Snow; designer Jacques Saulnier; costumes Jackie Budin; editor Hervé de Luze; producer Jean-Louis Livi; production companies F Comme Film, France 2 Cinéma and Solivagus
Screened February 9th 2014, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 competition advance press screening)