91. That was the age at which Alain Resnais finally, and probably reluctantly, kissed this world goodbye and sailed onward into the great unknown, his fingers surrendering their grip on the camera lens after 68 years in the business of making movies. The French director was clearly in it for all the right reasons, a master at throwing life on the big screen in ways we’d never before imagined. His penultimate work, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, released near the end of his life, actually felt like a swan song, with its story of actors grouping together to mourn the loss of a dearly departed director friend; Life of Riley, his actual last film, feels like a man just getting ready to change the world of cinema all over again, but with the teething problems that come with it.
Life of Riley takes place in Yorkshire, where a group of theatre-loving friends – all getting on a bit – are knocked sideways by the news that their dear comrade, George Riley, only has months to live thanks to cancer burning through his body. The amateur dramatists bunch together and decide to get George involved with their upcoming play, in order to liven up George’s final months on Earth; he’ll be able to see out his final days in the constant company of his friends, with the not-so-subtle implication that art will embolden and enrich even the most doomed soul hanging in the air. Of course, this utterly benign plan quickly turns sour thanks to George’s reinvigorated libido, threatening to split the myriad wives apart from the husbands in the circle. But the standout aspect of Life of Riley is that it doesn’t actually take place in Yorkshire, as it clings to its Alan Ayckbourn-penned source in name and description alone; the stunningly good actors all play out their lives on impressionistic sets that wouldn’t look out of place in an avant-garde production, while they never for one moment pretend that they are English whatsoever – despite their language and accent, these French thesps retain all those small mannerisms, personality ticks and views on life that feels far removed from the culture they’re supposedly displaying. These aspects are all very jarring, but they do play into what Resnais is getting at, and was always getting at through his career; that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely fakers.
Through this queer oil-and-water culture clash, Life of Riley still triumphs – mostly – thanks entirely to its performances. Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier, Hippolyte Girardot and others combine their acting talents to achieve an engrossing reality amid the waking dream of the sets, and the hazy contrivance of the world they’re playing those out on barely feeds into their perspective. It sounds like heavy stuff, but Resnais is never actually interested in heavy ontological themes in Life of Riley, leaving that more as side dressing; this is all about the laughs, the awkward moments between these colourful, rich and rewarding characters.
But the movie isn’t without its faults. At points, it’s absurdly difficult to get past the artificiality of the production and focus on the focal point of the film, being those performances; why didn’t Resnais just put on a play instead? you may feel like asking. But he clearly never cared for sticking to one medium or another; instead, he opts to pick and choose, chop and change where and how he pleases, and Life of Riley is a frontrunning example of that, with all the problems that method can potentially bring. But Resnais could have done worse than having Life of Riley be his (unintentional) swan song. if you can buy into his committed take on theatricality, then this is right up your street; it just won’t be a street that actually exists.
Life of Riley is released on DVD and Blu ray on March 25 from Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series.