Slices of Cake: "Life of Riley"

in 64th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Michel Ciment

The Berlin FIPRESCI Jury watched some accomplished films which were not very original, and some original films which were not very accomplished. Therefore, we unanimously decided to give our Prize in the Competition to Alain Resnais’ Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter), a work which is both accomplished and original. The following day, Resnais’ 20th feature would be awarded a Silver Bear, the Alfred Bauer Prize, by the official jury for a film that “opens new perspectives.” This suits a director who, at 92, and after 65 years of uncompromising filmmaking, is still seeking out formal experiments. Since his adaptation of Henri Bernstein’s Mélo (1986), Resnais has been flirting with the theater, perhaps never more so than in his work inspired by Alan Ayckbourn’s plays: Smoking / No Smoking (1993), Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs, 2006), and now Life of Riley.

Resnais’s refusal of naturalism, his shooting on a sound stage, the stylization of his actors’ performances, and his hybrid film form (with shots of the real Yorkshire countryside, painted backdrops, and detailed pen-and-ink illustrations by the famous cartoonist Blutch) go against the grain of most contemporary cinema inspired by real events and TV docudramas. In his old age, the director of films which dealt with Hiroshima, Nazi concentration camps, colonialism, torture in Algeria, the Spanish civil war and 1930s French politics (Stavisky) has turned more and more towards love and death, romance, humor, and the comedy of manners. Like Hitchcock, he now admits to preferring “slices of cake to slices of life.”

As in his preceding film You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (Vous n’avez encore rien vu, 2012), Life of Riley deals with actors, ends with a funeral, and gravitates around an unseen character — in this case, George Riley, who has terminal cancer. Using a widescreen frame which alternates master shots with close-ups, Resnais elegantly follows, with his cameraman Dominique Bouilleret, the movements of three couples who are more or less connected to a play being rehearsed, also by Alan Ayckbourn, Relatively Speaking (Ayckbourn’s first West End hit in 1969.)

Kathryn (Sabine Azéma) is Riley’s former love and now married to Colin, a doctor (Hippolyte Girardot). Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) is Riley’s oldest friend and now a philanderer who is nevertheless protected by his wife Tamara (Caroline Sihol), while Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), Riley’s ex-wife, leads a new life with her jealous husband Simeon (André Dussollier), a gentleman-farmer. Resnais inserts surrealistic touches such as the appearance of a mole puppet, and creates an uncanny feeling by using British props, newspapers, groceries and maps while the characters all speak French! At once rigorous in its stylistic devices and plot developments and wildly free, the film testifies to an artist who loves to play games, to give free rein to his imagination and, above all, to celebrate life, even in the presence of death.

The Grandmaster played one more trick. Due to a back problem, he could not make the trip to Berlin, but his thespians (except Michel Vuillermoz, who was onstage in Paris), his producer Jean-Louis Livi, his dialogue-writer Jean-Marie Besset and the cartoonist Blutch did not stop during their press conference or interviews to evoke the absent Resnais-Riley! Life was imitating art.

Edited by Lesley Chow