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Berlin Review: Alain Resnais’ ‘Life of Riley’ Is Disappointingly Lackluster Filmed Theater From a French New Wave Master

Berlin Review: Alain Resnais' 'Life of Riley' Is Disappointingly Lackluster Filmed Theater From a French New Wave Master

his recent features “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet!” and “Wild Grass,”
French New Wave legend Alain Resnais showed a continuing flair for
cinematic ingenuity. Unfortunately, with “Life of Riley,” the filmmaker
vanishes into the static nature of the stage play that provides the
movie with its source material. Resnais’ third treatment of a work by
British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (following 1993’s “Smoking/No Smoking”
and 2006′ “Private Fears In Public Places”) is his least
distinctive project in years. While the French-language, York-set comedy achieves some mild entertainment value from the play’s appeal and its engaging cast, “Life of Reilly” is
largely a superfluous footnote to the lofty career of its nonagenarian
By remaining faithful to the material, “Life of
Riley” displays a certain oddball charm in its mixture of neurotic
characters and one notable absence — namely, the figure of George
Riley, who remains an abstraction and never appears onscreen.
Instead, the
terminally ill man is the focus for various people
affected by his life: His best friend, the middle-aged Jack (Michel
Vuillermoz), urges George’s estranged young wife Monica (Sandrine
Kiberlaine) to return to her ailing husband during the final six months
of his life; meanwhile, George’s doctor Colin (Hipolyte Giradot)
attempts to obscure news of George’s illness from his gossipy wife
(Sabine Azema, Resnais’ wife and frequent muse), who spends much of her
time reflecting on her easygoing life with Jack’s equally chatty partner
(Caroline Sibol). The scenario contains sitcom-ready simplicity — though Akyckbourn’s dialogue aims for
humor more than belly laughs, resulting in a subdued, meandering
observational portrait on
the wavelength of its low-key performances.

Resnais follows suit. The gimmick of George’s impact on others provides the sole object
of intrigue as the movie drifts through one act to another over the
course of its eight-month span. Aside from B-roll of York streets and
painted sets to show the exteriors of the various homes where the action
takes place, “Life of Riley” unfolds on lawns and living rooms with
virtually nothing cinematic to hold our attention. As the
characters yammer on about their regrets and frustrations — the women
discuss their husbands’  shortcomings in bed, the men talk about romantic
discontent, the parents plan a sweet-16 for their absent daughter —
Resnais emphasizes the theatrical nature of the material without
complicating it for the medium.

Instead, “Life of Riley” features bland
attempts to resemble its roots in theater. Whenever Resnais cuts to closeups of
individual characters, they appear against etched backgrounds. The
minimalist set design trades doors for
curtains. Setting aside a goofy fake gopher (seemingly rejected from “Caddyshack” auditions) that routinely pops its
head out of the ground during scene changes, and a simplistically upbeat
soundtrack that sounds like something borrowed from the same library as
the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” jingle (Resnais is an avowed fan), “Life
Riley” is little more than a lightweight piece of filmed
The movie´s failings especially sting during its final minutes, when an actual crane shot
introduces the faintest glimmer of real filmmaking and directorial
intent — just enough to emphasize everything missing before. Of
course, the play itself holds some appeal on its own terms, though
Resnais’ apparent disinterest in enlivening the narrative results in one
art form clumsily stuffed into another. When
a wistful character in “Life of Riley” waxes poetic about “the endless ebullience of
youth,” it’s hard not to think back on Resnais’ storied achievements and
wish that line still applied to him as it has on his last few efforts.
Maybe next time.

Criticwire Grade: C

Unlikely to receive much of a commercial release, the film will
play European festivals but may struggle to find a U.S. distributor
interested in taking it on.

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