‘Life of Riley’
Director: Alain Resnais
Stars: Sabine Azema, Hippolyte Girardot
3 (out of 5) Globes
When artists know death is coming, they sometimes busy themselves with their final statement — a work about death with which they can gracefully bid their farewell. Film titan Alain Resnais got to do it twice. He might have done it even more times had he not passed earlier this year, less than a month after “Life of Riley,” the film that proved his actual swan song. “Life of Riley” concerns death and a group of actors grouping together to mourn the loss. So does “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” Resnais previous film. The latter — a masterful, elegant, dense study of life in the face of death — would have been a far more elegant final work. The more slight but sneakily deep “Life of Riley” works too, even if it stretches for some formal ideas that might have developed further had he lived to make more. Resnais was looking for new frontiers, right up to the end
“Life of Riley” returns the film titan to playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose plays Resnais adapted into “Smoking/No Smoking” and “Private Fears in Public Places.” It’s easy to see what drew the director to this one: It concerns a group of small town community actors who discover their compatriot, George Riley, may soon succumb to terminal cancer. Riley is never seen but constantly referred to, as the film’s three women (Sabine Azema, Caroline Sihol and Sandrine Kiberlain) were once or still are involved with him romantically. This rankles the men (Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz and Andre Dussolier), and produces the series of tete-a-tetes and occasionally group antics that follow.
Ayckbourn’s work errs towards the self-reflexive, “Life of Riley” moreso. The play they’re mounting is Ayckbourn’s own “Relatively Speaking,” and the discussions and emotions that result often intermingle with the text they rehearse. Resnais goes further still: Obsessed in his last decades with the crossroads of cinema and theater, he stages the action on a clearly artificial stage, with deliberately fake sets and props. His cameras usually keep their distance, but when they go in for close-ups, the actors speak declaratively in front of a white background with hand-drawn black lines running across. (If Resnais was stresses the three dimensions of the stage, these inserts throw us right back out of it.) At one point characters head indoors to an actual, non-theatrical room, while scenes are broken up by either shots from the front of a vehicle driving down a small town road or cartoon drawings of the places in which this takes place.
It’s all playful, and Resnais pitches it as a light comedy, even if it’s one about mortality, grief and life regrets. When death finally kicks in, Resnais only kicks up the goofiness more, cranking up the wacky music, as though he could defeat the misery of death through filmmaking itself. Ayckbourn’s play may be too light, if anything; the characters are too thin, their problems too superficial. It’s not even clear if Resnais cares about the particulars of what the actors are talking about —as long as it serves up winking parallels to filmmaking and his coming demise. It’s more fun to think about his construction of the material than about the material itself, and more rewarding too. This souffle, played as broadly as possible, with copious silly formal experiments, proved to be the last film of a filmmaker who started off as one of the medium’s most serious. In a way that’s perfect.
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