Cinephiles often characterize prolific French filmmaker Alain Resnais’ lengthy “late period”—spanning roughly three and a half decades until his death this past March—as an era of formal experimentation. There is merit in this description: Resnais drifted away from the anxious severity of features such as Hiroshima mon amour and Muriel in favor of a disarming playfulness. Beginning in the 1980s, he started toying with the relationships between cinema and other mediums, from operetta to comic strips. Most conspicuously, Resnais adapted several theatrical plays into features, often using them as an opportunity to try out some newfound cinematic technique or stylistic flourish.
Sometimes, however, experiments fizzle. Such is the case with Resnais’ final film, Life of Riley (French: Aimer, boire et chanter), adapted from British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s play of the same name. Resnais previously directed film versions of Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges and Private Fears in Public Places. In the latter (retitled as Cœurs, or “Hearts”), Resnais unaccountably transforms the writer’s desolate tale of disaffection into a sudsy yet poignant comedy. While disappointingly airy and oddly over-praised by critics, Cœurs at least feels like a good faith attempt to translate a work from stage to cinema. The same can’t be said of Life of Riley, which in many ways plays like Cœurs’ more ungainly, half-assed cousin.
Set in present-day Yorkshire, Riley features a cast of three men and three women, paired off into three male-female couples. Kathryn (Resnais regular Sabine Azéma) and Colin (Hippolyte Girardot) are modestly bourgeois—he's a doctor, she's a dental receptionist—with a row house in Leeds and the free time to perform as amateur actors in a local troupe. Fellow dramatic society members Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) and Tamara (Caroline Sihol) are living lavishly on the latter's self-made fortune, which also supports Tilly, Jack’s teen daughter by a previous marriage. Meanwhile, schoolteacher Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) has recently fled to the country to live with her older lover Simeon (André Dussollier), a taciturn widower and farmer.
The link between these characters is the eponymous George Riley, who is Monica's ex-husband and a mutual friend of the four wannabe dramatists. The gimmick is that Riley never actually appears onscreen. He is not some cryptic, hovering Godot-like figure, however. He stands astride the film's events, the unseen mover and shaker behind the plot. Inevitably, his name intrudes into every conversation, as the characters are all infatuated with him after a fashion. The screenplay's sly joke is that each person describes a somewhat different impression of the man, who seems to be in the habit of peddling self-serving and contradictory half-truths. As a result, Riley scans as a man-shaped dotted outline rather than an actual character—or, alternatively, as a mirror that reflects each person's weaknesses. The only truism that emerges is that Riley is something of a disingenuous son-of-a-bitch.
The story begins with a bitter revelation: Colin has learned through a colleague that Riley has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and that he has only months to live (if that). Gathered together to rehearse a new play at Jack and Tamara's luxurious estate, the four friends are shell-shocked by the news of Riley’s illness. Bizarrely, they resolve be to cast their friend in the play, ostensibly to distract him from his grim prognosis with art and camaraderie. Meanwhile, a conflicted Monica attempts to disentangle herself from Simeon so that she can care for Riley during his remaining days, despite the fact that a part of her still loathes her ex-husband. Detailing the plot any further would be superfluous. Everything that follows in Life of Riley is essentially a flurry of posturing, manipulation, and bad judgment emanating from the film's set-up.
On paper, Riley makes for a wry little tale about self-delusion and faux-virtuous narcissism, but Resnais makes some unfortunate choices in the process of bringing it to life. He presents the film in the manner of a shoestring theatrical production, complete with the painted canvas backdrops and chintzy props one might encounter in a community theater filled with preening fifty-somethings. (Hey, just like the play within the film!) It’s an amusing but one-note gag, and while it doesn’t particularly enrich the material, Resnais’ commitment to it hobbles the film in some respects. He and cinematographer Dominique Bouilleret shoot most of Riley in sleepy medium shots. When an extended monologue occurs, the film cuts to a jarring close-up in which the speaker is suspended in a green-screened cartoon limbo. Each scene change is signified by a dissolve to a slapdash illustration of the next setting, in a shot that often lingers awkwardly for far too long. The performances match the film’s style, with the majority of the dialog delivered in a hurried, emphatic manner that would be more fitting for live theater. (Vuillermoz in particular tends to play to the nosebleed seats, to the point where Jack almost seems like a cartoon character.)
Ultimately, Resnais’ efforts to recreate the absurdity of a low-rent theatrical production just seem limp and half-hearted. The “play-as-cinema” conceit isn’t an inherently dubious conceit, of course. The problem is that a lot of blandness lies between, say, the contemptuous Brechtian harshness of Lars von Trier’s Dogville / Manderlay dyad and the ornate unreality of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. In contrast, Riley’s conspicuous fakery is just underwhelming, and never amounts to much thematically. A generous viewer could argue that Resnais is highlighting the silly play-acting and flagrant phoniness that are the stuff of human relationships, but that seems a woefully banal subject for such formal effort. Ultimately, the film’s primary effect is to compel the viewer to seek out a polished live production of Life of Riley to witness it in its original form.