NYFF 2014: Life Upon the Wicked Stage – ‘Life of Riley’

aimerboireLife of Riley
Written for the screen by Laurent Herbiet and Alain Resnais
Directed by Alain Resnais
France, 2014

Alain Resnais is inarguably one of the most prolific directors to come out of the French New Wave, with nearly 50 films under his belt, including his masterworks Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, and Night and Fog. Undeterred by age, he seemed to have been working up until the day he died, with his swan song Life of Riley being presented posthumously at this year’s New York Film Festival. Those only familiar with his Nouvelle Vague work will be in for a pleasant surprise: Life of Riley is perhaps more fun that it deserves to be.

Based on the play by Alan Ayckbourn, the film follows two (or three, depending on how you count) couples in the midst of rehearsals for a play, as the news of their friend’s fatal illness affects one person after the other. Life of Riley is so breezy and entertaining, its nuances and complexities come as a surprise by the end of the film. It does feel like a strange hybrid between theater and cinema, with Resnais gamely using locations shots of Yorkshire and illustrations of buildings to transition from scene to scene, while the sets are dressed crudely and in a playfully abstract manner so as to resemble a local theatrical production. In the end though, it is the warmth of its characters that prevents what one would assume to be an inherent distance between the scene and the audience. It’s not like Dogville, where its black box Brechtian deconstruction of theatre and film is supposed to be jarring in a disconcerting way; in opposition to Lars von Trier’s idea, Life of Riley‘s characters are supposed to be the bridge to that theatrically cinematic world.

It’s not entirely a happy marriage of those two mediums though, and one might start wondering if Life of Riley is just a filmed theatrical production. Yes, the artificiality is entirely purposeful, not unlike the artificiality of its characters presentations, but it would be a disservice to the film to write it off as only that. The fluidity of Dominique Bouilleret’s cinematography has a vitality to it. Unlike a filmed staged production of something like Company or Sweeney Todd, this camera moves. There isn’t a conventional shot/reverse shot structure of scenes (is there really ever in an art house film?), but Resnais’ camera does move in and out, closer and farther from people, turning and, when the direction permits it, following characters. (There’s also a funny thing that happens from time to time: during some close-ups, there’s a purposeful loopy background, so obviously fake it’s as if Resnais is gently provoking the audience.) To take the film too seriously than it needs to be taken, the counterfeit nature of the sets is no less counterfeit than the characters. All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare once wrote.

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And, oh, how these characters are fun: They’re flawed, curmudgeonly, volatile, depressed, elated, thrilling. They – Kathryn (Sabine Azéma) and Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), Tamara (Caroline Silhol) and Jack (Michel Vuillermoz), and Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) and Simeon (André Dussollier) – are like unofficial surveys into the ridiculous emotions and actions one feels and takes in the strangest situations. Like a screwball comedy, no one really knows what the other person is doing or understands their motives or intentions. It’s less manic than Howard Hawks, but no less meaningful, for, though the action of the film takes place off-screen, the emotion is laid bare in front of the audience. Through intimate conversations, characters divulge the details of the desires, frustrations, and melancholy. And these actors so deftly transition from touching, even occasionally startling moments to sharp witticisms and droll observances with biting humor, and back again.

Perhaps the film’s most fascinating aspect, though, is that much of the film’s narrative is propelled by the person we never see on-screen: the titular Riley. Georges Riley, the character that falls terminally ill, is only ever talked about and never seen. His influence is undeniable, as nearly every action that a character makes, or thinks of making, is a reaction to or in advance of something Georges has done or will do. It’s an expansive impact that exists in a container: though these actions and reactions are rooted in Georges Riley, their particular impact and existence is more often than not within their own couplings, both platonically and romantically.

Resnais’ Life of Riley is a welcome inclusion in a normally morbid and somber festival experience. His last film is as lively and enjoyable as one could possibly want, while simultaneously being able to explore human folly. But, parting is such sweet sorrow.

– Kyle Turner

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