Premiering this past February, less than one month before its legendary director, Alain Resnais, passed away at age 91, Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter, 2014; screening Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. & Dec. 6 at 5:30 p.m.) is at once a feathery-light sex farce and a histrionic gloss of a dying friend’s final days. Another easy, if intentionally awkward entertainment from a filmmaker who first made his name, in part, with the ironic and iconic Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955), nearly six decades before, Resnais’s latest and last is also an aggressive piece of anti-cinema, an overtly theatrical modernist exercise that seeks to destroy any vestige of traditional motion-picture illusionism. Life of Riley, in other words, is built to highlight its own artifice, to remind viewers, at every turn, that they are not observing life caught unawares, but instead a construction, of actors, delivering written lines, in unreal places. Maintaining the mid-century modernist faith to the very end, Resnais leaves us with a work of art that doesn’t pretend to be life, but instead proudly announces its status as a collaboratively constructed aesthetic object.
Born in Vannes, Brittany in 1922, Resnais began making short films as a teenager after receiving an 8mm camera as a birthday gift. At age 17, Resnais relocated to Paris, where he would study acting at the Cours René-Simon from 1940-1942 (see Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues & Jean-Louis Leutrat on Resnais). In 1943, according to film scholar James Monaco, Resnais enrolled in the newly formed French film school, the IDHEC, to study editing. It was in order to pursue this vocation that Resnais returned to Paris in 1946, after completing his military service in Germany and Austria. It was at this time that Resnais also began to make his own documentary shorts, culminating, during the mid-1950’s, in Night and Fog and Toute la mémoire du monde (1956), the latter of which is an essayistic work set in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Three years later, Resnais helped define the newly emergent French New Wave, and in particular its “Left Bank” faction, with the Oscar-nominated Hiroshima mon amour (1959), a masterpiece of traumatic historical memory, which fellow nouvelle vague director Eric Rohmer (My Night at Maud’s) insisted was “the first modern film of sound cinema.” Featuring interpolated flashbacks throughout the course of its deeply experimental, deeply romantic nonlinear narrative, Hiroshima mon amour set the template for the formally radical first decade of Resnais’s fictional career – a period that included the notoriously opaque landmark Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961); my own personal favorite among Resnais’s early films, fragmented piece of tortured memory Muriel (1963); La Guerre est finie (1966), an exceptional work without obvious precedent in its use of flash-forward inserts; and Je t’aime Je t’aime (1968), yet another adventurous and unchronological object of remembrance, which OKCMOA screened on a beautiful new 35mm print in late November.
Though the director remains best known for this first decade of feature production, particularly in the United States, he would remain a major artistic and cultural force in the French cinema for the more than four decades that would follow. His continued interest in memory and his associated predilection for narrative fragmentation and formal experimentation are likewise present in one of his two or three best films, Providence (1977), starring Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud and Ellen Burstyn; as well as in the Academy-nominated Gérard Depardieu-starrer, Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980). 1986’s very great Mélo marks another key juncture in the director’s career, both with its move towards theatrical adaptation – in returning to the director’s earliest formal training – and also its late period-defining collaboration with wife Sabine Azéma, one of the stars of Life of Riley (pictured, right). A decade later, Rensais scored another major French hit with his musical blast of pure pop entertainment, Same Old Song (On connaît la chanson, 1997), which nearly swept France’s version of Oscar, the César awards. Finally, the 21st century witnessed the director working at his absolute peak in Private Fears in Public Places (Cœurs, 2006), the second of Resnais’s three adaptations of English playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn. (The first, 1993’s Smoking/No Smoking, was yet another multiple César prize-winner for the director.)
Life of Riley is Resnais’s third Ayckbourn adaptation, and opens in the Yorkshire countryside of the playwright’s native England. From the first, however, Resnais resists a naturalistic presentation of this setting: the film’s primitive credit graphics – a superimposed black text box and red lettering – detract from the picturesque opening country road visual; a hand-drawn map introduces the Yorkshire setting; the camera pushes in to an amateurish illustration of English row houses and gardens; and brightly colored swaths of fabric and inexpensive stagecraft decorate the film’s domestic settings. Instead of opting for a more conventional (and one might say ‘classier’) open air theater, which would draw on the medium’s ability to present its filmed dialogue in real-world settings, thus minimizing the classical artificiality of theaterical set-design, Resnais heightens this very aspect, insisting that his film is no more real than the theater from which it derives. To much the same end, Resnais’s actors, who are in the process of mounting a play, slip between ‘real-world’ conversation and the scripted dialogue from the picture’s structuring performance. In this way, Life of Riley demands to be viewed not as some parallel form of reality, but rather as pure fiction, as a scripted work featuring actors in unreal places. Conceptually, of course, it is no different than most narrative cinema. Where it departs is in its insistence that it be understood in its most literal (modernist) terms. Finally, there are Resnais’s close-ups, which present his actors before patterned, black-and-white backgrounds, which emphasize the figure’s extraction from volumetric space. In these moments, we have only the actor’s face, delivering lines, before a flat, unreal backdrop.
If all this makes Life of Riley sound like an imposing piece of anti-cinema, a work that resists the creature comforts of traditional illusionistic storytelling, the fact is that this is an accessible, often funny and finally emotionally rich film – so long as one can acclimate his or herself to the feature’s stylistic and conceptually quirks; or, all those mannerisms that ultimately make Resnais’s latest matter more than most. At its narrative core, the director’s last film is a Restoration-style comedy and death narrative, the story of terminally ill actor George Riley’s ‘busy’ final year. However, as with the filmmaker’s masterful previous feature, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Vous n’avez encore rien vu, 2012), Life of Riley centers on a character, in the eponymous Riley, who is absent from the film – though unlike the director’s preceding death-themed feature, it is not because the title character has already passed away. What Resnais instead presents in Life of Riley is George’s circle of friends, as well as three of his former lovers (pictured), who, in the light and lascivious spirit of the film, all agree to go away on holiday with the dying – but very sexually alive – unseen protagonist. Maintaining a narrative strategy similar to the one he employed in his previous Ayckbourn adaptation, Private Fears in Public Places, Life of Riley alternates between the exceedingly artificial homesteads of George’s lovers and their current men, combining salty sex-based humor with light melodrama as the film progresses, from spring to winter, toward Riley’s graveside. It is in this most fitting of places, and without the aid of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’s final-act coup de théâtre, where the filmmaker’s extraordinary body of works will come to its affectingly personal close. In the end, Resnais gives us his beginning and his end: actors, exiting the stage, and death.