If we are to take Life of Riley, the final film by the French master Alain Resnais, as a valedictory reflection, its message is delivered with a lighthearted shrug. Accept the possibility that the material world is artifice, then play with it. Have fun. Lose yourself in the game of make-believe like children putting on a play.
That only partly describes the artistic philosophy of Resnais, a die-hard experimentalist and aesthete driven throughout his career to defy the status quo and move around the scenery, all the while suggesting that the past and the present are indivisible.
The film’s surreal levity conveys the amused, farsighted perspective of an old man (Resnais died in March at 91) whose sense of the absurd hasn’t curdled into bitterness. The late films of his more overtly nostalgic contemporary Eric Rohmer express a similar attitude of wistful acknowledgment that the Sturm und Drang of romantic passion are long ago and far away.
The title character, unseen in the movie but very much present in the minds of friends and lovers, is an intrepid bon vivant who, even while suffering from cancer, vacations in the Canary Islands with a teenage girl and dies when he goes scuba diving without an instructor. Talk about life force! In the slightly disapproving tone of Riley’s former lover, Kathryn (Sabine Azéma, Resnais’s widow), “He wanted us to stay young forever.” At a certain point, she couldn’t keep up with him.
Adapted by Laurent Herbiet and Alex Reval from Alan Ayckbourn’s 2010 stage comedy, Life of Riley is the third Resnais film based on a work by this British comic playwright, whom Resnais greatly admired.
Absurdist touches and incongruities abound. The movie, although set in England, is directed in the style of French boulevard comedy, and it is untied to any nationality or culture in its tone and language. Recurrent shots of the verdant Yorkshire countryside locate the story geographically, but in its mixture of visual styles, it is Continental surrealist.
One running joke is the recurrent sight of an animatronic mole pushing its head out of the ground to observe the petty domestic melodramas of three couples rehearsing a community theater production of Relatively Speaking, an Ayckbourn play from the mid-’60s. When, at the last minute, a cast member drops out of the production, the search for a replacement leads to their friend George Riley, who has just received the cancer diagnosis and been given six months to live. The play, they agree, would give him something to do in his final days.
The play’s grounding character is portrayed by the bored, tippling Kathryn, who is now married to the dour Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), a doctor obsessed with punctuality and his collection of timepieces. She married Colin because he was the opposite of Riley; in her words, Colin was “never young.” Though asked to be discreet in spreading the news of Riley’s illness, Kathryn immediately picks up the phone and broadcasts it far and wide.
The first to be told is his oldest friend, Jack (Michel Vuillermoz), a wealthy businessman whose wife, Tamara (Caroline Silhol), runs the country house where rehearsals take place. Jack, on hearing the sad news, goes histrionically to pieces. Prowling the property is Riley’s estranged wife, Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), who left him for Siméon (André Dussollier), a farmer and the film’s least developed character.
Life of Riley is neither especially profound nor riotously funny. An element of caricature is palpable in the performances but restrained. Voices are rarely raised, although Jack’s affair with an unseen woman who calls him at all hours of the night irritates Tamara to the point where she tosses a drink in his face. The joke of the film is that Kathryn, Monica and Tamara, who conspicuously relishes rehearsing love scenes with Riley, all desire him. And when he announces that he is traveling to Tenerife, he separately invites all three — or so they claim — to be his traveling companion and caretaker.
Life of Riley surveys the world from multiple visual perspectives. It gives full expression to Resnais’s impulse to break down the barriers between movies, theater and illustration. Whenever Life of Riley changes location, Resnais shows a cartoon of the place by the French artist Blutch. But the actual houses, lawns and gardens are painted stage sets designed by Jacques Saulnier. Once in a while, the sets are replaced by a grid of intersecting black-and-white lines.
And what about that mole, which gets the movie’s last laugh as it ducks back underground? Think of it as the silent Resnais equivalent of a hiccupping Porky Pig announcing, “That’s all folks.”
Cast: Sabine Azéma, Hippolyte Girardot, Caroline Silhol, Michel Vuillermoz, Sandrine Kiberlain, André Dussollier and Alba Gaia Bellugi.
Director: Alain Resnais.
Screenwriters: Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval and Jean-Marie Besset, based on the play by Alan Ayckbourn.
A Kino Lorber release. Running time: 108 minutes. In French with English subtitles. No offensive material. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.