In a scene of Life of Riley, Tamara (Caroline Sihol) and Colin (Hippolyte Girardot) start joking about a possible flirtation between them – or, more exactly, between the characters they interpret in the play they are rehearsing. Colin’s wife, Kathryn (Sabine Azéma), doesn’t seem too affected by the insinuation. “Why can’t Colin and I flirt seriously?”, asks Tamara. And Kathryn instantly replies: “Flirting seriously is an oxymoron, like a silent scream”.
The oxymoron – the rhetorical figure that consists in bringing together two terms which apparently contradict each other – is at the core of Alain Resnais’ cinema: an art he patiently perfected down the years, across a fascinating trajectory that comprises around fifty works. Commercially released only a few weeks after his death in March 2014, Life of Riley pushes this practice to the limit.
The film begins by letting us know that the eponymous character, George Riley, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The fatal news drops like a bomb, shattering the day-to-day life of a group of people close to him: his ex-wife, Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), and her new partner Simeon (André Dussollier); two couples of friends – Kathryn and Colin, Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) and Tamara – and, eventually, the teenage daughter of the latter couple, Tilly (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi), who was also Riley’s former student. Without denying either the inevitability of his death, or its consequences in the lives of those that surround him, Life of Riley will trace the last months of George’s existence while avoiding tragedy and subverting solemnity. On the contrary, the gravity of the situation becomes a trigger for endless jokes, and the inspiration for a spirited depiction of the ways in which those who survive Riley face this catastrophe.
The inconsolable Jack, George’s best friend, suggests offering him a part in the play in which Kathryn, Colin and Tamara are involved; at the same time, he tries to convince Monica to reunite with George again for the months he still has left. But, soon, everybody’s concerns about poor old Riley take an unexpected twist that will wrench all their lives: George begins to experience a kind of wild rebirth and, suddenly, all three women become increasingly attached to him, while their partners impotently observe the disintegration of their relationships.
In one of the film’s most bizarre moments, Resnais introduces a totally unexpected insert: a close-up of an animatronic mole that laboriously (but successfully!) makes its way out of the ground, opens its eager mouth and emits a nauseating sound (later, there’s a brilliant pay-off to this witty idea). This outrageous and exhilarating image, inserted in the middle of the most suspenseful and dramatic plot point, is a merciless metaphor of George winning over death and returning victoriously to life; it works, too, as a sharp comment on the general, patronising attitude toward those who are ill. But, above all, it is a great example of how fearlessly Resnais approaches the issues of life and death: as a matter of serious playfulness, of charged lightness.
A central question of many Resnais films, but especially of his three Alan Ayckbourn adaptations, concerns the hypothetical destinies or the alternative paths that characters could have followed if, at some point of their lives, they had made different choices, uttered different words, performed different gestures. This is the central conceit of Smoking/No Smoking (1993), based on Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges: an elaborate diagram where every decision gives rise to two variables, and each one of these options to two more, and so on. In Life of Riley, this what if question doesn’t drive the narrative in such a structurally extreme way, but it is indeed what lies behind Riley’s power: he’s a figure or emblem of unfulfilled destiny, of the second chance, of the unfollowed (abandoned or never taken) path; and that’s why all the women end up attracted to him. Even for Jack, Riley represents the ideal that he was not brave enough to pursue.
Writing about Heaven Can Wait (1943), Jean Douchet proposed that whenever Ernst Lubitsch’s characters are living in the ephemeral moment, they long for what is permanent; but when they face the permanent, they yearn for the experience of the instant. This contradiction is also at the heart of Life of Riley, and is tackled in a particularly poignant way. Whatever it is that the female characters expect from George, one thing is certain: it won’t last. Because George is about to die, he embodies a kind of safe detour from their ordinary lives. He allows them to pursue their desire, to savour – for a few moments – the taste of another life. The experience may be brief but it shall be real; and, more importantly, it can last forever in the form of an idealised memory that won’t need to face the fissures of time.
To have such a dramatically weighty character never be seen on screen seems to be a daring enough principle for a movie. While it is true that neither Ayckbourn nor Resnais invented this game, it’s a delight to realise how far this conceit can be pushed in Life of Riley. On a first viewing, three questions progressively arise in the spectator’s mind: the initial “when will Riley appear on screen?” is soon transformed into “are we ever going to see Riley on screen?” and, finally, becomes “how the hell will they manage not showing Riley in this scene?”.
Resnais plays with a gamut of formal and narrative strategies to keep this character out of our sight, finding some wonderful solutions in order to make the most of this obligation. In one scene, for instance, Riley’s part in the play they are rehearsing is read out by Tamara’s husband (by taking up George’s role and lines, Jack brings together, in a swirl, two realities at once: his own, illicit extra-marital affairs; the romance between his wife and Riley). But the best moment concerning Riley’s bodily absence is the fabulous birthday sequence where the entire action of the party – including Riley frantically dancing with teenage Tilly – happens off screen, leaving us only with crazy screams and noises, loud music, and the comments and reactions of a few characters who remain within our field of vision.
But who is George Riley, really? This is an enigma that the film itself doesn’t solve. It’s not just his presence that remains secret; his personality is a puzzle comprising scattered pieces that don’t quite fit together. When other characters try to describe him or to predict his reactions, there’s always a disagreement. The information that we receive about his persona is contradictory or, at the very least, problematic (a bon vivant who hates holidays?). He seems to embody la joie de vivre, but this uncomplicated man is also defined by his ex-wife as “a mystery”: you can never know what is in his mind or in his heart. When Kathryn talks to Tamara, she evokes his eternally young spirit, someone who always listens to you, capable of stopping time and making you feel like the centre of the universe. But isn’t this image of George a fantasy that works in opposition to her real husband (someone with a “watch in the ass”, unable to listen, always old, even when he was young)? The only thing that we come to know with certainty about George is that, rather than being a character, he exists only as a projection.
Resnais’ motto “without form, there’s no emotion” takes an intricate path in his cinema. He’s not a director we would immediately associate with formalism like, for instance, Alfred Hitchcock. In Resnais, form is not the dressing or vehicle for emotion; rather, the connection between those two springs from a certain tension or unfittingness.
This has to do, first of all, with a search for authenticity by way of pushing artificiality as far as possible. In Life of Riley, for instance, everybody speaks French; however, Resnais insists on pointing out that the action takes place in Yorkshire. And we can’t miss this fact, because the film starts with no less than eleven shots of maps, road signs and travelling views of the real city streets filmed from a car. As the location doesn’t seem to have any special relevance to the plot, it would have been much easier to keep it undefined. But the director likes to underline the artificiality of this clash between the language spoken by the characters and the region they supposedly inhabit.
It seems that, for Resnais, the further away he gets from verisimilitude, the closer he is to something truly genuine. This quest is perfectly understood by his actors: when it’s necessary, they are unafraid to take their performances into the realms of exaggeration, even satire or farce. They embody their characters, but in a way that is far from any improvisatory, ‘real life’ style. If there’s a naturalness that springs from them, this comes from infinitely calculated, extremely rehearsed performances. In Life of Riley, both veterans and newcomers are great, but maybe it is Sabine Azéma – with her huge arsenal of inventive body gestures and expressions – who goes furthest in this direction.
In place of architectural elements, the wonderfully minimal décors of Life of Riley, designed by Jacques Saulnier, are composed only of a few props and large, painted fabrics, with vertical coloured lines suggesting walls (an influence from Sacha Pitoëff’s theatrical productions). Like the black-and-white backgrounds that Resnais introduces occasionally (but never predictably) while filming his characters in close-up, this is another step into abstraction. It’s because of all this that Resnais’ cinema is often labelled theatrical. But let’s not forget that these elements are turned into a source of purely cinematic emotion. Resnais likes to create sudden, unexpected mood switches, often in the middle of a scene: the change happens in the cut from one shot to another, in the lapse of a pan or a walk, with the entry of music or of a certain light – it feels as if a shadow was darkening a garden or a breeze of wind was moving the grass.
The second structure that sustains the connection between form and emotion is defined by what we could call a dispositif-driven sensibility – with Resnais setting parameters as parts of a mechanism that often involves repetition and seriality. But it’s a dispositif that, nonetheless, is ever ready to flip itself upside down, twisting its own principles and rules, generating internal surprises. We find a good example in the use of drawings by French cartoonist Blutch. Nearly every time there’s a change of location (and there are many), Resnais introduces one of these drawings. Framed from different distances, offering wider or smaller portions of the landscape, sometimes zooming in on them, the drawings function as classical establishing shots.
Resnais’ mania can sometimes have a deliriously comical effect, such as when Jack tries to reach George by telephone, and the director keeps frantically intercutting between both locations – each time obediently introducing, of course, the appropriate establishing shot. This saturation or excess blows the supposed functionality of these shots and transforms them into something else. Not to mention that Blutch’s drawings do not look at all like the sets, nor do they (due to their very similar style, colour and texture) help viewers to clearly distinguish between the four different locations!
The plot of Life of Riley advances via a game with what we could call ‘group configurations’: exchanges between couples; social encounters where three or four characters are involved; scenes where pairs of males and females enter into contact; and, very occasionally, moments where one, single individual remains alone in the shot, with the spectator becoming the privileged witness of his or her feelings. This may seem, again, a rather theatrical, rigid structure. But what’s wonderful about this film is that each scene is carefully designed, both in narrative and formal terms, to capture and enhance the particular dynamics that derive from putting together this or that group of characters. Each one of these scenes and group configurations offer distinct opportunities for staging and editing and, at the same time, entail a different set of norms and behaviours, a unique play of trust and suspicion, of secrets and revelations, of what is said and what is hidden.
Through this intricate chain of intimate exchanges, the characters’ quiet routines are torn apart, and the cobweb of Life of Riley is spread. And, at the end, the same chaotic force that seems to be at the core of this entanglement makes everything return, as if magically, to its place.