The play was once again the thing for Alain Resnais, as theatre serves as the backcloth for The Life of Riley (2014), his final film and the follow up to follow-up to 2013’s Cannes Competition entry You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (itself based upon Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice). This time around, Resnais chose to rework British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s The Life of Riley, with the story’s comedy about middle-class infidelity translating well into French. A curious overture places the audience in the Yorkshire Dales as the nonagenarian takes us on a tour through the area’s twisting roads before the confines of a sound stage.
As a tempestuous couple sits at a table in an artificial garden, quarrelling over their lines, the audience is instantly disorientated – left to feel like they’ve intruded upon the dress rehearsals of a quasi-stage production. However, it doesn’t take long before we realise the curtain has already risen and we’re observing a play within a play. Colin and his wife Kathryn are preparing for a local amateur dramatics performance that they’re both starring in. Yet, when the conversation turns to Colin’s job, this affluent doctor lets slip (thanks in no small part to his wife’s antagonistically curious nature) that their good friend George Riley only has a few months left to live.
The news has a massive impact on the couple’s social circle, with friends Jack and Tamare also acutely affected. They agree to give George a starring role in their play and get him back together with his ex-wife. But, as opening night draws near, this tightly-knit group of northern socialites find themselves burdened by heightened feelings of jealous and distrust – the enigmatic behaviour of George casting a covetous net of anxiety over this antiquated rural idyll. Like François Ozon reinterpreting an institute almost as British as BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, this delightfully droll comedy not only imbues the levity of Ayckbourn’s prose, but also the absurdity of English pomposity into a quintessentially French farce.
An example of cultural ‘peer review’, Resnais remained relatively faithful to the source theatrical production, emphasising its intrinsic theatricality by filming on large, hand-painted sets and using long, sustained take which allows for the play’s sharp, tactile prose to take centre stage. Stripping the film of its cinematic ornaments (although nowhere near the extent of either Lars von Trier’s Dogville or Manderlay), Resnais lets us deconstruct the narrative ourselves, enjoying its sharp humour and allowing us the time to observe its subtle nuances. However, this merely leaves the uninitiated to wonder just how good Ayckbourn’s play must be.
A postmodern experiment in both form and function, Life of Riley’s rigidity can at times feel like its restricting its actors, leaving them unable to treads the boards with the same authority they would on the stage. Resnais attempts to remedy this constraint by positioning the cast in front of pop art-inspired black and white backgrounds, expressing themselves to the camera via an indulgent stream of conscious. What initially appears to be a case of art imitating art soon begins to feel like an economic and tawdry imitation. Despite what The Lightning Seeds may have said, for many Resnais’ last won’t be worth finding the time for.
A version of this review was originally published on 11 February, 2014 as part of our coverage of the Berlin Film Festival.