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NPR Arts and Life

'Life Of Riley,' Alain Resnais' Final Film, Bids A Sunny Adieu

Hippolyte Girardot and Sabine Azéma play spouses in <em>Life of Riley</em>.
Hippolyte Girardot and Sabine Azéma play spouses in <em>Life of Riley</em>.

There are as many mysteries in Alain Resnais' final film, Life of Riley, as there are in the movies that made his reputation almost 60 years ago. But where Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad were shadowed by history, this sunny adieu is set in a series of make-believe gardens.

Resnais, who died in March at 91, made his first two features from cryptic scripts by, respectively, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Yet in recent decades, his literary muse has been British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who chronicles the middle-aged and middle class. Life of Riley is Resnais' third or fourth adaptation of an Ayckbourn play, depending on whether 1993's Smoking and No Smoking are counted as one or two movies.

The film's stagey chatter begins in the backyard of Colin (Hippolyte Girardot) and Kathryn (Sabine Azema, the director's wife). They're discussing marmalade when she breaks character to complain that he's jumped over some of her lines. Their bickering is actually rehearsing for an amateur production of a play by, of course, Alan Ayckbourn.

The production is being arranged, somewhere in rural Yorkshire, by one Peggy Parker. She never appears on screen, but her absent presence is a minor enigma compared to the invisible existence of George Riley. He's also never seen or heard, yet he prompts nearly everything that happens.

Colin, a doctor, mentions that one of his patients has terminal cancer. He declines to name him, but Kathryn quickly figures it out. She knows the ill-fated man better than Colin realizes; Kathryn and George, a teacher, were lovers before her marriage — something she's never revealed to her husband.

Colin and Kathryn are co-starring in the upcoming play with George and Tamara (Caroline Sihol), who are becoming close — in part because Tamara realizes that her husband Jack (Michel Vuillermoz), George's best friend, hasn't ended the extramarital affair he'd told her was over.

As Kathryn and Tamara begin competing to take care of George, they're unexpectedly joined by his estranged wife, Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain). She temporarily leaves her new lover, Simeon (Andre Dussollier), to comfort George in his final days. Also in the picture, although not visually until late in the film, is Jack and Tamara's almost 16-year-old daughter, Tilly. She's had a crush on George, her former teacher, since she was 9.

Perhaps George never arrives on screen because no performer could persuasively embody a middle-aged Yorkshire schoolteacher who has such erotic allure — even in a mixed-up movie where French actors, most of them Resnais regulars, play at being British. But George is also, like the missing persons and jumbled memories of the director's more somber films, more an idea than a character. Not yet dead, he's already a figment of others' imaginations.

As always, Resnais emphasizes the contrivances of both theater and cinema. The scenes play on brazenly artificial stage sets, interspersed with naturalistic traveling shots of Yorkshire byways and drawings of the locations by French comic-book artist Blutch. Some closeups have only cross-hatched backdrops, also by Blutch. Yet quick cuts and fluid movements claim this theater piece as, in fact, a film.

Some bits of characterization, such as uptight Colin's fixation with clocks or thwarted Kathryn's secret drinking, are cliches of bourgeois dramedy. But subtler elements also surface, including wry asides about the movie itself and more complex ideas about role-playing in life and art.

It's apt that, in the film that became Resnais' last testament, the title character's expected demise jackknifes into an unanticipated comic twist. Where the director's early work was haunted by the Holocaust, the atomic bomb and the Algerian war, Life of Riley blithely celebrates love, possibility and absurdist surprises.

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