Only the vivacious die young, notes one character in Alain Resnais’ “Life of Riley,” while “the tiresome, humdrum ones live forever.” But if that’s true, then surely Resnais himself is the exception that proves the rule. Turning for the third time to the work of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (“Private Fears in Public Places”), whose highly theatrical comedies of manners have made good matches for Resnais’ consuming interest in form as a vessel for character and emotion, “Life” doesn’t find the 91-year-old helmer doing anything he hasn’t done before, but it does find him doing it in ebullient, beautifully stylized fashion, aided by an able-bodied ensemble drawn from his regular corps of traveling players. The result won’t do much to win Resnais new fans, but should easily seduce fests and distribs who have long supported the maverick director’s work.
If Resnais had gone into the culinary arts instead of the cinematic ones, then surely he would have emerged as a molecular gastronomist avant la lettre, whipping up foie gras-flavored cotton candy as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Instead, for more than 60 years now, movie audiences have been privy to his moving-image test kitchen, where disparate stylistic and tonal collisions are par for the course, and the surprising aftertaste reliably reveals an underlying method to the apparent madness. From Resnais’ earliest films, this has entailed seeing just how far he can ostensibly push an audience away by exposing his artistic scaffolding (particularly in the radical montage techniques of films like “Hiroshima mon amour” and “Muriel”), all the while stealthily drawing us closer in. And beginning with “Melo” in 1986, this ongoing experiment has increasingly drawn on explicitly theatrical aesthetic devices to at once push and pull at the audience’s attentions.
In “Life of Riley,” that means shooting on soundstages, on exaggeratedly theatrical sets with painted backdrops and cardboard shrubbery (courtesy of production designer Jacques Saulnier), through which the characters are forever entering and exiting. Resnais juxtaposes this with second-unit location shots of the real Northern England countryside (where Ayckbourn’s play is set), which dissolve into beautifully detailed pen-and-ink illustrations created for the film by French cartoonist Blutch. Though we are not in the fully deployed surrealist realm of Resnais’ “Wild Grass,” the greatest and most wildly inventive of his late films, we are most certainly not in Kansas anymore.
Curiously, this is Resnais’ second film in a row (after 2012’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”) in which the principal characters are themselves actors rehearsing a play, spurred on by the death of a loved one. But whereas “Nothin’” featured a who’s-who of French stage and screen stars playing versions of themselves, reunited on the occasion of a storied theater director’s sudden passing, the characters in “Riley” are amateur thespians in a community theater who learn early on that a close mutual friend has been given a few months to live. Adding yet one more self-reflexive layer to the proceedings, the play within the film is Ayckbourn’s own “Relatively Speaking,” the 1969 farce that proved to be his first major West End success. The theater’s demanding director, Peggy Parker, along with the eponymous Mr. Riley, are discussed at length by the other characters but never seen by the audience. Shades of “Waiting for Guffman” as rewritten by Samuel Beckett abound.
The story revolves around three couples. First we meet Kathryn (played by Resnais’ wife and frequent muse, Sabine Azema) and her doctor husband Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), who have both been cast in Peggy’s production, though Kathryn constantly childes her spouse for not taking his acting seriously enough. Early on, Colin reveals that their close friend, George Riley, has just been handed a terminal cancer diagnosis, news Kathryn spreads to George’s oldest friend, Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) and his wife, Tamara (Caroline Silhol), whose country manor doubles as the “Relatively Speaking” rehearsal studio. When Jack drops out of the play, the ladies propose George as his replacement, having calculated that he will live long enough to make opening night, though it soon becomes clear that both have other reasons for wanting to spend time in the dying man’s company. Rounding out the sextet of visible characters are George’s estranged wife, Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), and the new man in her life, the retiring gentleman farmer Simeon (Andre Dussolier).
Resnais orchestrates all of these comings and goings with such graceful ease that it can be a pleasure simply to watch the movement of the performers through his meticulously composed widescreen frames (the d.p. is Dominique Bouilleret), which alternate between expansive master shots and intimate closeups. For some of the latter, Resnais drops out the already artificial background of his sets in favor of a white screen criss-crossed by hundreds of thin black lines — another distancing device that recalls the Ben-Day dot art of Roy Lichtenstein and, by extension, Resnais’ career-spanning interest in comicbook art (long before it became the Hollywood vogue).
The formal brinksmanship never comes at the expense of the characters, who are, typical of Ayckbourn, ordinary middle-aged, middle-class folks beset by the myriad disappointments, regrets and might-have-beens that come with the passing years. We learn that Jack and Tamara have a teenage daughter, who has become a way for them to not talk about the real problems facing their marriage; then, in one great scene that cuts directly to Resnais’ belief in the transformative power of art, the dialogue the couple are rehearsing from “Relatively Speaking” suddenly seems to express everything they have kept tamped down and locked away inside for far too long. We see, too, how Kathryn (very well played by Azema, in more restrained fashion than some of her signature Resnais roles) feels trapped by the overly fastidious Colin and longs for someone freer and less inhibited — someone, indeed, like George, whose impending “last holiday” in Tenerife, and who he will choose to accompany him on it, becomes a breathless concern for more than one character.
The actors are a uniform pleasure to watch, especially Vuillermoz (wonderful as one of the bumbling cops in “Wild Grass”), who finds a real pathos here as a man shaken from his quotidian stupor by the impending death of his friend. Kiberlain, who’s been on a tremendous mid-career roll with her mousy detective in Serge Bozon’s “Tip Top” and her Simone de Beauvoir in “Violette,” is another standout as the woman torn between her romantic ex and her reliable new helpmeet. That all of this is playing out in French, but with British props (newspapers, groceries, etc.) and subtitled British colloquialisms, has the odd effect of making Ayckbourn and Resnais seem all the more universal in their concerns. In the end, “Life of Riley” may have nothing more (or less) profound to say than “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think,” a sentiment Resnais himself has certainly taken to heart. For its French release, the pic has been retitled “Aimer, boire et chanter” (or “Love, Drink and Sing”), to which Resnais might just as soon have added “filmer.”
Marking his fourth collaboration with Resnais, “X-Files” composer Mark Snow contributes a typically jaunty, shape-shifting score that enhances the emotion of the scene just as often as it strikes a willfully eccentric counterpoint.