Caroline Sihol as Tamara and Michel Vuillermoz as Jack in "Life of Riley," a film by Alain Resnais. Photo Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc.

Caroline Sihol as Tamara and Michel Vuillermoz as Jack in “Life of Riley.” Photo Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc.

Who is this George Riley anyway? The three couples in Life of Riley, Alain Resnais’ last farewell film which premiered at the 51st annual New York Film Festival this last October, talk and talk and talk about him. He evidently played a pretty colorful role in their lives and now that he’s terminally ill, they have to figure out what it all meant. Don’t expect Resnais to spell it all out for you, and Riley himself never shows up to set the muddy record straight. He’s as elusive a character as the famed director, who died at 91, just three weeks after the film won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

If you believe that the human condition is worth a laugh or two before the Grim Reaper puts in an appearance, then this is the perfect parfait of a film for you. This is the same director who gave us such experimental films as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), fragmenting and shifting narratives until memory, forgetfulness and imagination are all part of the same cinematic stew. He never shied away from death as a worthy subject for film — Providence (1977), with the likes of John Gielgud as a dying novelist mining his past, is a prime example. Humor was elemental for Resnais in treating such themes, which he called a “macabre divertissement.”

From the first moments of the film, we are led down the winding roads of a bucolic English countryside, accompanied by a jaunty musical score jangling in our ears. There’s certainly nothing macabre here, but wait — we’re suddenly confronted by a series of delicately rendered illustrations of the various manor homes of our principal characters. What kind of fairy tale is this? In the wink of an eye, we find ourselves in a theatrical setting, where the players enter and exit through scrim flaps in whatever stage home or garden the story leads us. Frequent mise-en-scènes with titles indicating the time and season of our story add to the play-within-a-play feel. (The recent remake of Anna Karenina by Baz Luhrmann managed to provide us with an artificial construct on this classic tale.) This twin-reality is made even more so by the fact that some of the characters are also rehearsing a play off-stage that features the talents of the no-show Riley.

Are we in a play or a movie? According to Resnais, it hardly matters. He often said he preferred to work with “people of the theatre” and saw no separation between cinema and the stage. He refused to make enemies of them. That’s all well and good, but it does require an audience that is willing to accept his artificial conventions in storytelling. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a film is not just a film is not just a film in this director’s hands. Life of Riley was in fact adapted from Relatively Speaking, a play by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Ayckbourn’s own sensibility in many of his works has more than a touch of the absurd as well as stylistic innovations that are complementary to Resnais’. To name a couple of them, Absurd Person Singular and the trilogy The Norman Conquests were huge hits. In Absurd, the characters gather around a woman who has stuck her head in an oven in a suicide attempt, while the onlookers simply assumed she was trying to clean it.

Resnais has assembled a first-rate cast for his bittersweet farce. We are first introduced to Kathryn, played by Sabine Azéma (Resnais’ wife in real life) with a consummate mix of hysteria and nonchalance. She is saddled with Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), a priggish, clock-obsessed husband who is involved with her in a local community theatre production. All we have to do is listen to them rehearse their lines together to know they are hopelessly out of sync. Then there’s the older Tamara, played with a proper blend of sophistication and cynicism by Caroline Silhol, whose own spouse Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) happens to be Riley’s best friend. Besides dealing with his wife’s own infatuation with Riley as her leading man, he must consider his own philandering. Lastly, there’s Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), Riley’s now ex-wife, who had shared his life for 11 years. She is now involved with the much older farmer Siméon (André Dussollier) who seems to accept in this May-December match his wife’s conflicted memories of Riley.

Such concentration on a character we will never see has its pitfalls. But then no actor could live up to the hyperbole that surrounds the man, so perhaps it’s just as well that Riley remain a figment of our imagination. It’s a conceit that works in the script, as the real drama is in the characters’ varied vexations about Riley while he’s alive and what it forces them to confront about themselves.

It’s really the three women who take center stage in their alternately thwarted and unresolved relationship with Riley. Remarkably, even in his advanced stage of illness, he is still enough of a Don Juan to have tempted the three to go away to the Canary Islands on holiday. Tamara is obviously considering a fling in her late middle age as an antidote to her settled existence. As for Kathryn, she once again can fantasize about the amorous Riley she knew in her youth and Tamara’s sudden interest is an infuriating distraction. Remember, this strange menagerie is now like a wheel without the hub with Riley as the missing link. The two women alternately fight and make up over the man in burlesque overtones that stretch whatever believability the story retains. Monica seems most rooted in the reality of her new life, and when prompted by Jack to make Riley happy in his last days, she angrily retorts. She can’t put her life “on pause like a DVD player.” She meant all the things she said to Riley when she left him for another, and she can hardly rescind them now.

Given this whole brew is based on an Ayckbourn play, wordiness is to be expected. In this film adaptation, the words stand in for the action. A few heated exchanges that threaten to spill over into some physical manifestation are barely enough to keep us from checking our watches. Without a well-seasoned cast, with an obvious experience in the give and take we expect from a professional theatrical ensemble, Life of Riley, without Riley, would be lifeless. With Resnais’ sense of play and the trust he can obviously count on from the stellar performers he has assembled, there’s a lightheartedness that prevails.

We are left with the feeling that if Riley were a bit of a scoundrel, he was a lovable one. Above all, he was human in spite of his foibles, who celebrated life and the living of it. The same could be said of Alain Resnais. Watching this last effort, it’s easy to feel he’s still with us, smiling from the wings.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Video courtesy of unifrance.