Alain Resnais’ Life of Riley was a film I was apprehensive of reviewing; here was a master whose landmark first two features – Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad changed the course of cinema as well as, in the latter’s case especially, my own conceptions of what films could be when I started watching art films for the first time as a fresh-faced teen. His death earlier this year was unquestionably a huge loss for cinema, and so now how to treat his final film? More concerning were the largely negative (and even at best, somewhat dismissive) reviews that started rolling out after the first screenings of the French nonagenarian’s final effort from Berlin this year – sadly, I can’t be the contrarian champion for a film that is, despite occasional joys and being rather watchable, quite tedious and dare I say it, redundant.
The major point of reference for this film is not established classics like Marienbad or even other early Resnais high watermarks like Muriel or Je t’aime, je t’aime, but his penultimate feature, 2012’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. For two films in a row, we have films that concern an old, dying man orchestrating a grand scheme or artistic prank (the real life connections are there to be made, but perhaps not interesting) involving theatre on his concerned friends that on a metatextual level are ruminations on the relationship between cinema and theatre and on performance. A third (with another in preproduction at the time of Resnais’ death) adaptation of an Alan Ackbourne play, Life of Riley tells the tale of six friends (including Resnais regulars Sabine Azema and Michel Vuillermoz). Upon learning of the terminal illness of their long-time friend, George Riley, they commit to an amateur theatrical production while the unseen Riley is playing a perverse joke on them all, by inviting each of the wives to a holiday with him in Tenerife, unbeknownst to each other and to their spouses. As drama, it’s watchable; the source material is not extremely strong – middle-class friends and neighbours gossiping and having affairs is pretty old hat by now in both cinema and theatre. The thematic armature of at least the literary text of the film is also fairly obvious – people hiding different truths from one another, and having different public-facing exteriors, heightened by the extremely theatrical, often rather painful acting performances of the lead players.
This leads into Resnais’ interest in the film about theatricality and the art of filmed theatre, which is quite tired and redundant. In You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, real life famous actors – Mathieu Amalric, Michel Piccoli, as well as Azema and many others – gathered to reprise roles in Orpheus that they had played in the theatre years before. This interesting dynamic of memory and performance arose out of the actors themselves, and it seemed to hit at some fundamental nexus between theatre and cinema – like Orson Welles’ idea that theatre was always alive but transient, but cinema was by nature dead and preserved, and thus forever alive. Life of Riley is a rather limp retread of this ground that more reflects Resnais’ own private amusement than any real intellectual statement on either artform, and huge step down from You Ain’t See Nothin’ Yet.
The distinct aesthetic of the film also seems to have brought a lot of joy to Resnais – the harsh, bright lighting and overproduced, whimsy score stylistically recall his previous film as well as Wild Grass before that, and in all three I’ve found myself rejecting the glossy and tacky artifice. The scenes unfold in sound stages with fake curtain backdrops and artificial grass and flowers. The garish artifice is quite jolting, but ultimately not that interesting – something that’s been done before (the film that came to mind for me was Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois) and to better effect.
Further still, every scene is preceded by extensive establishing shots of both two dimensional animated drawings and real shots of roads in the English countryside, before returning back to the ABC kids show sets on which the film takes place. These interjections are reproduced at nauseam and alongside the recurring gag that names, locations and maps are all clearly, almost hyperbolically English but the characters speak French, Resnais is clearly at his most playful and cheeky in this film. Unfortunately, these gimmicks become exasperating very quickly, save only for the appearance of a mole, so abrupt and at odds with everything else stylistically and narratively that I couldn’t help love that particular point. But mole appearances aside, this is not a film I can recommend.
Resnais’ films will be seen and appreciated as long as people are still watching and studying cinema, so I don’t feel too conflicted in my distaste for this final, clearly minor work. Sadly this dull, tedious affair is one of the big disappointments of the Festival so far – a film that Resnais and perhaps to a lesser extent, the actors, clearly had fun making, but one that will be very trying to most audiences.