This is Alain Resnais’ final film. This is his third adaptation of an Alan Aykbourn play, a different era to his previous exploits within his six-decade canon. Director of art-house classics Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais was often ambiguous with his intentions, merging dreams and reality, truth and fiction, throughout his stories. Life of Riley won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival (only one month before his death) “for a feature that opens new perspectives”, as it does again create conflict between stage and screen.
Of course, it’s slightly jarring when, fading into England (more specifically, the Yorkshire Dales), we are introduced to three couples all fluent in French. They are all from different middle-class backgrounds and are connected by a single man – the infamous “George”. Given six-months to live, “George Riley” (we never meet him) seems to be at the centre of many of their lives. Concerned Colin (Hippolyte Girardot) has a wife, Kathryn (Sabine Azéma), who has her own romantic past with George. Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) was brought up alongside George, and despite following different paths, they “shared the same dreams”. Jack’s wife, Tamara (Caroline Silhol), is looking at George in a different light with the knowledge of her husband’s infidelities. Finally, Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), is George’s ex-wife, who’s in the early stages of her life alongside Simeon (André Dussollier), the elder farmer. All white, middle-aged and comfortable, these are personal stories revealing more about relationships than about humanity. Akin to Woody Allen’s tackling of dramas within the upper class, this particular niche isn’t the type of film you’ll lose sleep over. Unless, of course, you are white, middle-aged and comfortable – and perhaps reflecting on your own marriage…
But with a back-catalogue that spans generations, Life of Riley fits interestingly within his breadth of cinematic dominance. Last Year at Marienbad is almost the definition of art-house cinema, with multi-layered sound and scene, toying with memory and truth through the camera lens. Resnais is fully aware of his camera as an artistic medium; his camera is a brush and editing is the cutting of collage. Hiroshima mon amour equally challenges the viewer, with an opening revealing the casualties of an atomic bomb, before drawing our attention to a romantic French-Japan relationship. Life of Riley seems flippant in comparison, as the focus is on localised, middle – and upper – class marriages. But there remains a knowing direction that confesses the lie of the cinema screen. These are actors relaying a story. They may, or may not, be real. In George Riley, there is a history we are not aware of and we will not be shown, but it has consequences. It seems fitting that this director has signed off with a film that simultaneously utilises methods and tools he has alluded to before, but within a colourful and almost-comedic context that alludes to a cheeky grin, beneath the darkly-lit, romantically-severe classics he is known for.
Life of Riley would not be recommended as the first film to watch by Resnais – the previously mentioned works of art are worth seeking out though. Its staged sets, and animated backgrounds, are a shock initially but they are a refreshing change in pace considering how dominant specific styles of storytelling are. Eric Kohn, of Indiewire, writes how it is a piece of “lightweight … filmed theatre”. And I guess it is. But, as a reviewer who is only swotting up on Alain Resnais’ films in preparation to discuss his last, it feels innovative and interesting – and a type of cinema we don’t see often (and that isn’t a bad thing).
This review was originally written for Flickering Myth on March 6th 2015