It’s quite impressive that the final film by Alain Resnais, released in 2015 around twelve months after the director’s death, contains almost as many examples of a fervent imagination at work as some of his revered early-1960s pieces. Understandably some of it is down to judicious collaboration: Life Of Riley is the third of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays that Resnais adapted for the big screen – an unlikely pairing if ever there was one – and the French auteur staged it in a way that’s often very inventive, relying on set designers and a graphic artist for its distinct theatrical milieu. It’s a comedy featuring three older couples whose relationships are briefly turned upside-down when they learn that their mutual friend and bon vivant George Riley is fatally ill, and will likely die before the year is out. As with another titular character, Godot, we never actually see George, though his presence is felt throughout; in fact most of the action also takes place off-screen, and is therefore only described by the characters we do see. These are Colin and Kathryn, a couple whose marriage is in decline due to Colin’s lack of assertiveness (and possibly his anally-retentive interest in clocks), Jack and Tamara, who have let their own problems fester while concentrating on their teenage daughter Tilly, and Simeon and Monica, a newly-forged couple who are still learning how to live with one another. The three women are all attracted to George – two are former lovers – and end up vying for his attention as his condition worsens, with the chance to accompany him on his final holiday a coveted prize. To provide an extra bit of narrative thrust, and in-keeping with the film’s staged feel, the characters are part of an amateur dramatics society rehearsing a new play in time for an autumn performance, so they are regularly in each other’s company as the year progresses.Most scenes feature two, three or four of the six friends conversing, and only a few separate locations are used, usually the gardens belonging to the three couples and George. Resnais filmed on a studio soundstage and depicted buildings using painted, hanging curtains (so when a character goes indoors they simply pass through a gap in the cloth). Though he employed writers to translate the play into French, Resnais kept Ayckbourn’s Yorkshire setting and his film includes a few seconds of ‘straight’ footage of the county’s roads before each scene, shot from the roof of a moving car. The scenes are also prefixed by insert shots of each couple’s abode – townhouse, farm and country mansion – that have been drawn by French cartoonist Blutch, while another style choice sees several short monologues delivered against a simple black and white crosshatch backdrop. All of this conjures a certain quirky charm, befitting of the light, comic nature of the material, and shows that Resnais’ sound cinematic judgement hadn’t deserted him. You could argue that transposing the setting from England to France might have been worthwhile, given that it would probably have ironed out a couple of minor cultural inconsistencies or slightly awkward juxtapositions, but there’s little point in speculating, and regardless it’s nice to see French actors and writers take on quintessentially English material. It may not be close to Resnais’ greatest work but Life Of Riley is a pleasant, uncomplicated comedy, and the performances are fun to watch. I particularly enjoyed Sabine Azéma as Kathryn, which is fitting for a couple of reasons: she was Resnais’ second wife and appeared in the majority of his films of the past 30 years; and also because they married in Ayckbourn’s home town of Scarborough in 1998.
Directed by: Alain Resnais.
Written by: Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval, Jean-Marie Besset. Based on the play Life Of Riley by Alan Ayckbourn.
Starring: Sabine Azéma, Hippolyte Girardot, Caroline Silhol, Michel Vuillermoz, Sandrine Kiberlain, André Dussollier.
Cinematography: Dominique Bouilleret.
Editing: Hervé de Luze.
Running Time: 113 minutes.