Daily | Berlinale 2014 Diary #5

Life of Riley

Hippolyte Girardot and Sabine Azéma in ‘Life of Riley’

“I prefer the movies” is the line you’ll likely see most quoted in reviews of Alain Resnais‘s spritely and delightful Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter), his third adaptation of a play by Alan Ayckbourn. I don’t know whether the line appears in Ayckbourn’s original, but—among other things—it flags Resnais’s awareness of what will likely be the most common criticism of his latest feature. He addresses it more directly in the press notes:

I try hard to give rhythm to the changes of pace in a film so that the directing is full of contrast: moments when the direction is reserved and academic, and then suddenly there’s a change in tone. Here’s what I dream of: that the viewer in the movie theater says to himself, ‘yeah, okay, it’s filmed theater,’ and then suddenly changes his mind: ‘yes, but in theater you can’t do that…’ And it goes back and forth from theater to film, and sometimes over to comic strips with Blutch‘s input. I’d like to try to achieve what Raymond Queneau called in Saint-Glinglinla brouchecoutaille,’ a sort of ratatouille, by breaking down the walls between film and theater and thus ending up totally free.

There’s another sort of rather exciting dissonance going on as well. Six very French actors, speaking French, play three very British couples. The setting is York and labels on the beer bottles sport the Union Jack. We see American, British and Australian actors portraying Germans, Russians, what have you, all the time, so the switch here, though it’s obviously far from the first, is kind of a thrill.

Until quite late in the game, there are only three sets, all outdoors. Scene changes are made via footage following a road from one house to another, then a cut to Blutch’s drawing of the house before the next cut to the scene itself. In a modest backyard, Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), a reserved doctor whose hobby is synchronizing antique clocks, and his wife Kathryn (an almost overbearingly vivacious Sabine Azéma) rehearse for a local production of play. In a far more expansive garden, the traveling businessman and philanderer Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) all but falls apart when he hears that his dear friend, George Riley (whom we will never actually see) has just six months to live. His wife, Tamara (Caroline Silhol), also cast in the play, tries to comfort him. Further out in the country, Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), who’s recently left George, tries to sneak a smoke without being caught by her new beau, farmer Simeon (André Dussollier).

It appears that Riley, hard at work offstage, has a plan. The comedy is lightly farcical and played straight; the sets are proudly artificial, sparse yet colorful with long vertical sheets of cloth serving as both backdrops and abstract renderings of the respective houses. There’s really only a single instance of the sort of WTF elements that have popped up in some of Resnais’s later works, a funny little puppet in the shape of a mole that rises from the earth with a silly smile in one insert, and sinks back down again in another. Resnais gives the critter half a page in the press notes, but in essence, “in no way should it be seen as any sort of symbol or message.”


Life doesn’t find the 91-year-old helmer doing anything he hasn’t done before,” writes Variety‘s Scott Foundas, “but it does find him doing it in ebullient, beautifully stylized fashion… If Resnais had gone into the culinary arts instead of the cinematic ones, then surely he would have emerged as a molecular gastronomist avant la lettre, whipping up foie gras-flavored cotton candy as if it were the most normal thing in the world.”


No subtitles, but still

“Similar to both Smoking/No Smoking (1993) and Private Fears in Public Places (2006) in its use of stagy sets, affected performances and Surrealistic touches,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter, “this joyous yet melancholic effort once again charts the woes of middle-class couples coping with problematic love lives, solitude and death, though manages to do so with a bit of a smile.”

For Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, Life is “largely a superfluous footnote to [a] lofty career.” Dan Fainaru in Screen: “Incidentally, the French title is taken from the Gallic name of a famous Johan Strauss waltz, which accompanies every one of the film’s visits to George Riley’s garden.”

Updates, 2/23: Jonathan Romney for Film Comment: “It came as a huge surprise to learn, 20 years ago, that the revered director of Marienbad and Muriel was a huge Ayckbourn fan, and had been taking holiday trips to the comic playwright’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough for years before Ayckbourn was ever aware of his presence. Eyebrows were raised, certainly in the U.K., over Resnais’s enthusiasm for a writer that many thought of as a purveyor of fluffy bourgeois comedies, but it took Resnais to remind the Brits of what theater critics had been saying for a long time—that Ayckbourn was a master of formal innovation not to be dismissed lightly…. Life of Riley isn’t for everyone, and I have to admit that it wasn’t entirely for me. Where Resnais consistently pulled surprise twists on the multilayering of film, life, and cinema in Wild Grass and the hyper-autoreflexive You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (12), here he’s doing something simpler, lighter, and in many ways, more academic and safe. Yet the sweet memento mori of the coda is rather moving (it’s the third consecutive film from this veteran in his nineties to offer a comic contemplation of death and of the best ways to live fully).”

“Although Resnais’s actors are very good,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia, also for Film Comment, “the play itself is not particularly engaging and only sporadically funny, and, in the absence of the experimentation that marked the filmmaker’s previous feature, it’s difficult to remain invested.”

“The intellectual thrust of the film hinges on alienation,” writes David Jenkins in Little White Lies, “from both the text and the staging. This is a wry critique of the theatrical mode whose ample pleasures derive from minute touches which offer a reminder of how the camera, its placement and a delicate edit here or there, can charge a banal text with added emotion and import…. This would make a great double bill with Oliveira‘s Gebo and the Shadow.”

I’m surprised that there were probably twice as many walkouts from Life of Riley as there were from Benjamin Naishtat’s History of Fear (Historia del miedo). The former, after all, is, for all its playfulness, a fairly straightforward presentation of a play, while the latter is the least formally conventional film yet to screen in Competition. It opens with a shot of a Buenos Aires suburb and the deafening roar of a helicopter over which police (presumably) call out orders to residents below. Some sort of crisis is at hand; the population needs to be alerted but there’s evidently a technical glitch and we hear the police mumbling that their message isn’t getting across—summing up History of Fear pretty well from the beginning, actually, and for some viewers, that will be a feature; for others, a bug.

Nothing seems to be working in Argentina at the moment. Elevators get stuck and go dark. Alarm systems go off for no reason. Whole power grids do as well. A young man standing in line at a fast food joint is suddenly overcome with ghostly muscle spasms that have him cringing down on into a crouching position, an animal set to pounce.

What Naishtat gets across most effectively is a sense that something terrible is about to happen, and it takes a while for the realization to sink in that we are never going to learn the exact nature of the threat. Revolution it ain’t; all classes seem at unease in equal measure. Wolves howl on the soundtrack. A holiday calls for fireworks and, on the ground, firecrackers, meaning that random explosions are going to be going off left and right for a while, setting everyone even further on edge. Even a simple dinner table game of “Who do you want to be and what do you want to have?” seems fraught with danger.

Occasionally, there are beautiful sequences such as the one in which a policeman in his patrol car, his windshield turned opaque by cascading sheets of rain is jolted by great splotches of mud splattering across his windows. Who’s throwing them and why… who knows. So far, I haven’t been able to add it all up, but I also haven’t been able to let moments like that one go just yet.


For Variety‘s Peter Debruge, “the subtext intimidates even as what’s happening on the surface sometimes seems inscrutable, the helmer aiming not to confuse so much as to allow audiences to project their own interpretations.”

“There are few reactions as unconscious and direct as the ones generated by unanticipated fear and the closely associated idea of self-preservation,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter. Naishtat “turns his debut into a feature-length exploration of how terror of the unknown can become a destructive force, initially just inconveniencing people… but gradually revealing that, in more extreme forms, reactions to things people don’t understand or (sometimes literally) can’t see have warped Argentinean society as a whole.”

Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “Like last year’s Neighboring Sounds from nearby Brazil, another critique of suburbia enacted with a disquieting mood, Naishtat hovers in the unknown feelings afflicting his subjects. And even without answering every question, he does manage to arrive at a tangibly engaging climax.”

Lou Ye’s Blind Massage (Tui Na) begins as the story of Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan) who, as a child, loses his sight in a car accident. The narration, combined with simple but well-chosen in-camera effects, conveys pretty well what all’s entailed in learning to cope with going blind. Soon, though, Blind Massage turns into an ensemble piece, a handheld soap opera. Zhang Zongqi (Wang Zhihua) and Sha Fuming (Qin Hao) run a massage center in Nanjing, a refuge for their team of blind trainees who work well together even as one or the other of them falls in love with the wrong other one or the other of them. There’s a lot of that. Blind Massage has its moments, truly, but as one storyline just begins to engage, we’re off to another, and then another, until, just before hitting the two-hour mark, Lou Ye wraps it all up with a tight close-up of a big smile. To me, that’s not at all where most of these stories seemed to be heading.


“There are over 50,000 licensed blind masseuses in China,” notes Fionnuala Halligan in Screen Daily, “and Bi Feiyu’s best-selling novel, which Ma Yingli has adapted for the big screen, focuses on the lives and loves of the practitioners in one such Nanjing centre. It’s not hard to figure out why Lou Ye (Mystery, Shouzou River) was technically attracted to this project, and he throws every angle of light and darkness at its visual ebb and flow, from jarring moments of high melodrama to the more gentle, blurred edges of love.”

“Lou’s detachment—often an artsy pose in his other films—has a kind of tactfulness here that allows these absorbing stories to speak for themselves,” writes Maggie Lee in Variety. “The professional actors, many of them Lou regulars, mingle comfortably with their sight-impaired amateur counterparts.”

“Putting aside the torrid sexual and emotional dramas of works like the 2011 Love and Bruises shot in Paris and his infidelity drama Mystery,” writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter, Lou Ye “describes these love stories as plain human affairs full of hope and frustration, poetry and banality, straddling an interesting middle ground between realism and imagination.”

In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland‘s fourth collaboration with Stellan Skarsgård introduces itself as a standard revenge thriller—pissed off working stiff (Skarsgård) sets out to kill every single bad guy remotely responsible for the death of his son—and then the laughs come in. Some of them, particularly the self-deprecating lines about Norwegians, are indeed pretty good. But not even halfway in, Moland goes all goofy on us. Seems that the higher we climb the ranks of two rival gangs, the sillier the characters we’re going to find there. One of them, by the way, is the second-billed Bruno Ganz, who doesn’t actually make a showing for the first hour or so. As a Borgen fan, I enjoyed seeing Birgitte Hjort Sørensen again (she was Katrine Fønsmark on Borgen), even if her role is minor and paper thin. And again, I’m not going to deny laughing at some of the gags, but overall, I do wonder what this glorified TV thriller, gorgeous as some of the shots of the snow-covered mountains are, is doing in the Competition lineup.


“There hasn’t been this much blood spilled in a frigid, snowbound landscape—especially with this much droll, dark humor—since the Coen Brothers fed a hapless Steve Buscemi into a wood chipper in Fargo,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “Already a brisk seller to international markets, the superbly directed film seems a safe bet to be snapped up for U.S. distribution, and a deal for remake rights surely won’t be far behind.”

Again, no subtitles

Variety‘s Peter Debruge agrees that it “feels more like an American crime thriller than virtually anything Scandinavia has produced before.” And for Screen‘s Mark Adams, it’s “a delightfully sustained and engagingly absurd film.”

Tom Christie at Thompson on Hollywood: “If the film’s end is a tad too Tarantino, and early Tarantino at that, Moland can be forgiven; the director, who studied at Emerson College and has been directing for 20 years, has fashioned a clever, stylish and satisfying entertainment.”

Updates, 2/23:In Order of Disappearance is the movie Quentin Tarantino might have made if he were charged with building an action film around Stellan Skarsgård and filming it, on a relatively modest scale, in snowiest Scandinavia,” suggests the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek.

For Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “while initially it struggles to establish a consistent tone, as soon as the plot kicks off in earnest, the film picks up speed and confidence, venting plumes of sight gags, bloody violence and deadpan, dead-on cultural observations like powdery snow from a thematically-appropriate metaphorical snowplow. A kind of Norwegian mash-up of Fargo, Taken and Seven Psychopaths, it soon ramps up to a dark, mordantly hilarious blast.”

“Even so,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, “as it careens toward a climactic shootout, the conflict suffers from the feeling of a routine, echoing the mold of minor Tarantino homage found in countless crime dramedies of the past 20 years.”

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