The autumn passage of the New Wavers continues apace with this, the final film by the late great postmodernist, whose movies were always fraught with our often self-destructive need for narrative. Resnais’s films got much bouncier as he aged, as if hunting down story became its own joy and not a means to an end, and this adaptation of the 2010 Alan Ayckbourn play is so frothy and chiffonesque it threatens to burst its own cheeks. Resnais’s lightheartedness (begun, it seems, once he’d met his future wife Sabine Azema, who’s starred in all of his films since 1983) is infectious as he dispenses with the cinematic “reality” he never quite trusted, shooting the six-person farce on obvious sets, with curtains for doors and flat theatrical lighting.
The hero, George Riley, never appears; Ayckbourn’s conceit was that the scenario’s three couples react to news of his terminal cancer with distress, and then orbit around him in an almost predatory fashion, particularly the three women (ex-lover Azema, flirt Caroline Silhol, ex-wife Sandrine Kiberlain), who end up all being asked separately to leave their husbands and go off to the Canaries for an impulsive holiday. In the meantime, several are rehearsing an off-screen play, for which they enlist George as leading man. Naturally, George’s very presence (or non-presence) reveals all manner of resentments, betrayals, and infidelities.
A Wodehouse wannabe, Life of Riley is the third Ayckbourn play Resnais filmed, but the substance of the wry drama means less to him than the distanced nature of theatricality itself, as it’s confronted and mutated on film. All concerned (the three codgery husbands are Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz, and Andre Dussolier) are just as frivolous with their performances, skylarking around these bare-bones sets having a high old time, clearly playing old friends pretending to put on a show about six very foolish Brits. (Ironically, non-celebs Silhol and Vuillermoz are the deftest.)
To Resnais contemporary Jacques Rivette, the theater was a conspiracy chamber, access to which only made life more mysterious. For Resnais, in the second half of his enormous career, it became a grand game, at once completely natural and completely artificial. Asked what he thought of the play-within-a-play, Dussolier’s grumpy “farmer” invokes the ambivalence: “Hmpf. I prefer movies.”