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Ninety-one years old and still at it, legendary French auteur Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour) offers up another outrageously artificial piece of filmed theater with Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter), his third adaptation of a work by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn.
Similar to both Smoking/No Smoking (1993) and Private Fears in Public Places (2006) in its use of stagy sets, affected performances and Surrealistic touches — in this case, inserts of drawings (by French comic book artist Blutch) and random appearances by a snickering mole puppet — this joyous yet melancholic effort once again charts the woes of middle-class couples coping with problematic love lives, solitude and death, though manages to do so with a bit of a smile. Still, its overtly theatrical style will turn off most viewers beyond the director’s faithful few, while a cast that includes Sandrine Kiberlain and Hippolyte Girardot alongside stalwarts Andre Dussollier and Sabine Azema should attract modest crowds when Riley hits France late March.
Based on Ayckbourn’s 2010 play (adapted by Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval and Jean-Marie Besset) the film follows the travails of three sets of partners living not-so-happily in the Yorkshire countryside, and for whom things are about to get worse when their friend George Riley — whom we neither see nor hear — is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
On one end there’s the quibbling doctor, Colin (Girardot), and his desperate housewife, Kathryn (Azema), who calls her hubby out for every false move while trying to conceal a burgeoning whisky habit. On the other there’s perpetual two-timer Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) and his spouse Tamara (Caroline Silhol), who tolerates her husband’s infidelities as long as he hides them well (which he doesn’t). And somewhere in between is Monica (Kiberlain), the recently separated wife of Riley who’s since shacked up with a jealous farmer (Dussollier).
When news of Riley’s sickness hits, his best buddy Jack is initially the most effected, while Kathryn and Tamara decide to invite the dying man to act in a play (Ayckbourn’s own Relatively Speaking) they’re putting on at a local theatre – and whose rehearsals serve as a framing device for the beginning of each new act. But it soon becomes clear that Riley’s life is less hopeless than we thought, especially as he seems to be attracting undue attention from all three women, whose men slowly learn that their good ol’ friend may be having a grand ol’ time behind their backs.
Eventually, things come to a head when the women are each inadvertently invited by Riley on an extended vacation to Spain, forcing their husbands to come to terms with their own inattention and unfaithfulness, lest they lose their spouses to an unseen force who, despite being on his deathbed, has the power to turn their marriages upside-down.
Extremely faithful to the stage-bound aspects of the original text, Resnais films most of the action in the various characters’ backyards, which are recreated in a colorfully cartoonish manner by vet production designer Jacques Saulnier (who first collaborated with the director on Last Year at Marienbad). Deliberately exposing the fictitious studio setting, with painted sheets of fabric serving as facades, doors and skylines, the filmmakers eschew any notion of traditional cinematic realism, highlighting instead the flyaway walls and squeaky floorboards of a theatre space.
The same can be said for the performances, which are purposely mannered, the actors indulging in the play’s witty banter while annunciating the dialogues a vive voix. (This is especially true of Azema, who’s explosively chirpy as the boozing Kathryn; Kiberlain is strongest as a woman caught between new and old loves.) Such a style can be off-putting for viewers used to naturalistic acting, while others may be wondering what the heck all these Frenchies are doing in York in the first place.
But Resnais, who began by making experimental documentaries in the 1940’s and now, nearly seventy years later, has embraced filmed-theatre as perhaps his most experimental mode yet, seems determined to carry the drama’s artifice to its upmost extremes, constantly exposing the fraud that lies behind classic narrative structures.
It’s a technique that makes sense with respect to Ayckbourn’s work, which often deals with the quotidian deceptions of suburban couples, until something happens — in this case, Riley’s sickness and transgressions — that makes the truth come shouting out. And while there doesn’t always seem to be a method to Resnais’ madness (the justification of the mole in the press notes is laughably abstract), he’s hell-bent on proving that cinema can embrace all forms, especially the theatre that preceded it. (“I prefer movies,” Dussollier’s character quips at one point, as if echoing Resnais’ own sentiments.)
Alongside the motley sets, the cinematography by Dominique Bouilleret mixes the interiors with occasional cutaways to exterior shots of the English countryside, as if to better underline the artificialness of the homes and backyards, which are also depicted in the establishment-shot drawings by Blutch. A playful score by regular Mark Snow adds a whimsical dimension to the proceedings, while ace editor Herve de Luze allows many of the scenes to play out in extended takes.
The film’s French title translates to “Love, Drink and Sing,” of which some of the former, none of the latter and much of the in-between appear on screen.
Production companies: F comme film, France 2 Cinema, Solivagus
Cast: Sabine Azema, Hippolyte Girardot, Caroline Silhol, Michel Vuillermoz, Sandrine Kiberlain, Andre Dussollier
Director: Alain Resnais
Screenwriters: Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval, Jean-Marie Besset, based on the play by Alan Ayckbourn
Producer: Jean-Louis Livi
Executive producer: Christophe Jeauffroy
Director of photography: Dominique Bouilleret
Production designer: Jacques Saulnier
Costume designer: Sophie Breton
Editor: Herve de Luze
Music: Mark Snow
Sales agent: Le Pacte
No rating, 107 minutes
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