Piece the deconstructing, by cinema piece.
The last film by the French auteur Alain Resnais comes with a cute backstory. Resnais had discovered that the playwright Alan Ayckbourn was putting on performances in Scarborough, a quaint seaside town, and he and his wife made secret excursions over a number of years to see them come to life. Later the two men met and Resnais asked if he was able to adapt one of his plays for the screen. Life of Riley is the charming, playful result of years of coy flirting between two dramatist icons.
There is a void at the heart of Life of Riley. That void is, as you might have guessed, Riley himself. Riley is both the central driving force of the film and its glorious absence. Two couples are preparing to rehearse for an amateur dramatic play; Kathryn (Sabine Azema) and Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), and Tamara (Caroline Sihol) and Jack (Michel Vuillermoz). Colin, the local doctor, learns that Riley is suffering from a terminal illness, and oafishly reveals this to Kathryn, who once shared a brief fling with Riley many years ago.
Kathryn quickly relays the news to Riley’s good friend Jack, an adulterous swine. What Jack doesn’t know is that his wife Tamara also has romantic longing for Riley. The hapless foursome try to make Riley’s hermetic life as idyllic as possible for his last days, inviting him into their production and descending on his shabby house like a pack of vultures. Ayckbourn’s play is a tightly concocted farce but with a dash of pathos to tug at the heartstrings. Although the characters are often ridiculous and self involved, we cannot help but feel for them as they are played by the ghostly presence that is Riley.
As it is a Resnais film there is a splash of experimentation and even cheekiness in how he has approached the source material. The original work is supposed to be set in a sleepy Yorkshire town, and Resnais begins with a series of shots of English town signs and picturesque villages. But this is all a hoax, as the actual drama unfolds on a self consciously staged set; artificial lighting abound and mise-en-scene straight out of a children’s storybook. In addition, all the actors speak in French, just to hammer home the point that this is not quite the provincial English towns that bore us all to sleep.
There is a light orchestral score which feels fairly modern, and it echoes the tone of the film pretty well. Life of Riley doesn’t feel like a film that is straining for the audience’s respect. It feels more like a work by a man who was constantly experimenting, caressing, pulling, pushing and provoking. There is a lightness running through the film that smacks of a director at one with themself, and while the film lacks a real punch, its breeziness and charm make it worth a watch.
Deconstructing the cinema, piece by piece.