Life of Riley (Alain Resnais, 2014)

A scene from Alain Resnais' final film,  Life of Riley   {Photo: KINO LORBER}

A scene from Alain Resnais' final film, Life of Riley  {Photo: KINO LORBER}

Life of Riley screens at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, March 13 and Thursday, March 19. For additional ticketing information, please click here

To address Alain Resnais’ Life of Riley is to critique a eulogy. As the final film of the renowned French New Wave director, and one that directly addresses death, Life of Riley is a very personal statement from the director. Thematically it’s a fitting conclusion to a filmography that was concerned with the way we compose memories. However, as an admirer of much of his output (particularly the 1980 film Mon Oncle d'Amérique), it’s quite clear that Life of Riley does not immediately strike the senses as being Resnais’ most complete work. Despite the stylistic flourishes that Resnais affords the material, it’s difficult to get past the simplicity of Alan Ayckbourn’s stageplay or the simplicity of the film itself; after all, this is the man who made such formally complex films like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad.

Ayckbourn’s stageplay involves a sextet of actors rehearsing a play while a seventh, an unseen George Riley, is recalled Ikiru-style. Riley’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, with the hope that he will complete the production prior to his death. As the film unfolds, the three women involved with the production develop an infatuation with the unseen Riley, where we learn that each woman shares a personal history with the man. One would figure that given Resnais’ stylistic tendencies that he may impose a framing device to overtly address the origins of these women’s memories. Rather, much of the film’s thematic concerns are addressed through dialogue that while delivered with a sharp tongue from Sabine Azéma, Caroline Sihol, and Sandrine Kiberlain, ultimately isn’t especially interesting or witty. This, compounded by a visual replication of exterior stage sets, results in a drab and visually disengaging effort.

Certain sequences involving characters submitting to monologues utilize an interesting black-and-white backdrop that visually complicates the affair, and is a notable device that asserts itself as a divide between the cinematic and the stage. Other sequences, one involving, of all things, a gopher, further highlights the unique vision of separating the stage and cinema. These labored efforts are appreciated, if only because I’ve apparently developed an aversion for stageplay adaptations from master directors (see: Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur). But if I ultimately can’t get behind Life of Riley it’s because the film’s source material does not possess the director’s vitality for his pet themes. Not to be mistaken for cruelty, it’s that vitality that made his early work so important. Life of Riley is a charming and light film, though the memory of a director of unprecedented formal sophistication is best exemplified in films like Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, and Mon Oncle d'Amérique.