Thursday, October 23, 2014

With sad,sweet,funny swan song LIFE OF RILEY we wave good-bye to a French new-waver

Watching Alain Resnais' newest -- and final -- film, LIFE OF RILEY can't help but be a sad experience for those of us who loved the guy's work, even if, for me at least, it took some decades to fully appreciate that work. Memory is one of this fabled French filmmaker's major themes, and I don't think that memory -- for young people, anyway -- has quite the major place in one's life that it occupies in later years. Resnais was also an experimental filmmaker right up until the end. Yet his experiments were always coupled to narrative in a way that, with some extra work, of course, one could begin to fathom meaning, while appreciating the style.

The filmmaker, shown at right, died earlier this year, and it is difficult to watch Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter is the original French title) -- based, as several of his films have been, on the the work of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn -- without imagining that Resnais knew quite well during the filming how little time he had left. I suspect his widow, Sabine Azéma, (pictured below, right), who is also one of the stars of the movie, would know for certain. The rest of us will just have to watch and wonder and enjoy. That last action, for Resnais fans, at least, will not be difficult, for he has given the movie a wonderfully "fake" look that combines gorgeous shots of the countryside and expensive estates with very obvious stage sets, and then occasionally places his actors in close-up against hand-drawn backgrounds that bring to mind comic book art.

Even if you've seen the rest of Resnais' work, you won't have experienced anything quite like this. The story itself is a hoot and a half about death and dying. The title character George Riley has been told by his doctor and friend (Hippolyte Girardot, below, left) that he has little time left to live.

Not only the doctor's wife (Ms Azema) but her best friend (the standout performer, Caroline Sihol, at left, two photos above and just below; with Michel Vuillermoz) are both former flames of Riley and of course are bereft by this news.

As is Riley's most recent love (Sandrine Kiberlain, below, left) who has recently split from George into the arms of a nearby French farmer (André Dussollier, below, right). The women are beside themselves, each desperately needing to see herself as George's one true love, while their men are at sea due to their women's sudden surge of independence and possible infidelity. Oh, and did I mention that some of these characters are simultaneously rehearsing a play which is due to be performed very soon.

Now, this is utter artifice -- on one level as silly as can be -- and I suspect that the original.Ayckbourn play was much funnier that what we see here. Yet out of it, Resnais manages to show up humanity's lack and hypocrisy in a way that is more sad than funny. And the film's final scene, in which we at last see a character other than our ever-present sextet, is most unusual. In it, the daughter of one of the couples, played by Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi, makes an appearance and somehow takes the movie into a deeper, darker contemplation of death's inevitability and finality.

If Life of Riley is nowhere near as interesting or layered a film as Resnai' most recent endeavors, Wild Grass and You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, it is still a film to be seen and savored -- for its performances, style and the fact that, having to work on what seems to have been less and less of a budget, the filmmaker nonetheless found a way to make his film so affordably and stylishly.

M. Resnais' final work -- from Kino Lorber and running 108 minutes -- opens in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema tomorrow, Friday, October 24. Elsewhere? Shocking as this may seem, no Los Angeles showing is yet scheduled. But the film will play at the Cinema St. Louis as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival on November 20 and 22, and then on December 5, it will play at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (unless, of course, Scott Walker wins his race for Governor once again and closes the school down).

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