You can hardly blame the great Nouvelle Vague director Alain Resnais for obsessing about death in the last two films he made. He was already a frail ninety when he made You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, a version of the Orpheus story as staged by a dead theatre director for his friends. He was ninety-one when he made Life of Riley, his final film, a light comedy about the emotional wreckage wrought by a man dying of cancer. (Resnais died last March, a few weeks after completing it.)
It’s cheering, and no mean feat, that, after You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, he managed to keep on working for another year. But if we were talking in the sterner context of artistic legacies, we’d have to mourn the fact that the more impressive and resonant film was deprived of swan song status by the odd little ugly duckling that is Life of Riley.
Life of Riley (or Aimer, Boire et Chanter to give it its French title) is the last budding fruit of one of cinema’s most incongruous meetings-of-minds, that between the director of intellectually rigorous films like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year in Marienbad, and British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, considered by many to be the last word in cosy, parochial English comedy. (Ayckbourn was reportedly both tickled pink and knocked over with a feather when he discovered the grand old man of French cinema had, for years, been holidaying in the seaside town of Scarborough and anonymously attending his theatre there.)
This third Resnais-Ayckbourn collaboration is, in some ways, a touching and fitting summation of the careers of both men (“so far”, in Ayckbourn’s case). Based on a 2010 play, it begins with a metatextual twist as a group of friends somewhere in rural Yorkshire prepare to put on an amateur production of Ayckbourn’s first big hit, Relatively Speaking.
When Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), a doctor, reveals that the free-spirited George Riley has only months to live, they decide to offer him a part by way of life-affirming distraction. But George has other ideas on how to spend his limited time, like reviving the amatory glories he had with his best friends’ wives Kathryn (Resnais-regular Sabine Azéma) and Tamara (Caroline Silhol), and with his own ex-wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain). George, whom we never see, is clearly a re-imagining of the chronically adulterous hero of Ayckbourn’s celebrated trilogy, The Norman Conquests, and the creeping darkenss behind the frothy comedy is pure vintage Ayckbourn.
One of British theatre’s sharpest experimentalists, Ayckbourn enjoys creating ingeniously intersecting chronologies and settings against which his characters struggle with the stuffiness of their lives. Resnais, no slacker in the formalism department himself, aims for the cinematic equivalent of this theatrical game-playing in Life of Riley by setting the characters against deliberately artificial backdrops of hanging canvaseses. Garish souvenir-shop-style illustrations and shoddy models are used as establishing shots. Also thrown into the mix are tracking shots along country lanes, an animatronic mole (don’t ask me!) and comic book-style panels for monologues.
Whereas Resnais worked this kind of artifice into a majestic, satisfying whole in previous films (not least in You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet), here it gives the film an ugly scattershot feel which misses both the usual crispness of Resnais’ visual style, and the coherent construction, let alone the sheer fun, of an Ayckbourn play.
It’s a melancholy thing to report that the incomparable Resnais checked out on such a dud note. If there’s a silver lining to be found in this painfully stilted experiment in comedy, it’s to be found in its less strident but certainly more “Resnaisian” grace notes: namely its musings about time, memory and the pain and redemptiveness of love.
Life of Riley is available on DVD
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.