Daily | NYFF 2014 | Alain Resnais’s LIFE OF RILEY

'Life of Riley'

‘Life of Riley’

Life of Riley, which premiered in Berlin just weeks before Alain Resnais died at the age of 91 in March, “often behaves like an unofficial stripped-down sequel to the director’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” suggests Chuck Bowen at Slant. “As in that film, a death (which, in this case, is forthcoming) sends the characters spiraling into riffs on the past that are informed by their highly theatrical background, which spins them, and the viewer, into the position of occasionally being unable to discern reality from fiction. George Riley, an unseen man dying of cancer, is a ghost before death, as he obviously embodies a youthful exuberance that was abandoned by the protagonists for the reassurance of day-to-day stability. Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) is a wealthy businessman who respects and envies George’s teaching as well as his patronage of the arts. Jack’s wife, Tamara (Caroline Sihol), has a thing for George that’s colored by her disappointment in Jack’s amusingly out-in-the-open infidelities. Colin (Hippolyte Girardot) is a doctor so hopelessly drab and conformist that he renders Jack a dynamo by comparison, a failing that Colin’s wife, Kathryn (Sabine Azéma), notices all too well. Occasionally interrupting this chummy foursome’s sonata of doubt and sexual/social resentment is George’s not-quite-ex-wife, Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), and her new lover, Simeon (André Dussollier).” This “overpoweringly beautiful final film, looks ever onward, daring to push through the ghosts that inhabit the present, standing between the pessimism of an ill-spent past and the optimism of an undefined future.”

“Theatre also plays a part in the story, when an amateur production for which George’s friends recruit him begins to infiltrate their private lives,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “Resnais’s cheerful artifice distills his characters’ lifetimes of regret, frustration, and pain into an elegant envoi; in a minute-long monologue delivered by Sabine Azéma—Resnais’s wife, now his widow—the director, famous for his manipulations of time, divulges the romantic secret at the core of his art.”

Photographer Robin Holland, who’s posted a terrific shot of Resnais taken in 1980 and another of Azéma snapped in 1987: “Based on Alan Ackybourn’s play, Relatively Speaking, it uses highly stylized sets (with cut-outs of flowers and bushes and flowing fabric) and paintings of the locations (as well as actual footage of the English countryside) as establishing shots. Close-ups of the actors on cross-hatched background, make them seem like superheroes in comic strips.”

Life of Riley is slow to get going,” finds Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club, “but it has considerably more charm than Wild Grass or Private Fears in Public Places. This is coming from someone who’s found most late Resnais to be airless, stagy, and stilted—a loss for cinephiles who treasure the director’s innovative montage and his genius with light and shadow, on display in such classics as Hiroshima Mon Amour, which is showing at NYFF in a new 4K restoration.” Just once! This evening. “Yet the relative larkiness of Life of Riley turns out to be a kind of secret asset, with Resnais using Ayckbourn’s rather threadbare farce as a springboard for his own playful narrative ruptures and musings on eternal youth.”

More from Forrest Cardamenis (Film Stage, A-), Howard Feinstein (Filmmaker) and Scout Tafoya (

Update, 10/12: For Max Nelson at Reverse Shot, “there’s something deeply ambiguous about Life of Riley’s simplicity. It’s the radical sort of simplicity reminiscent of the late output of so many great artists: the elemental, pre-Socratic mysticism of Heidegger’s later essays, Fernando Pessoa’s sing-songy late quatrains, Bob Dylan’s expansive recent variations on American roots music. Like those works, Life of Riley finds fruitful variations on a fairly rigid traditional form—in this case, the romantic farce. And, also like them, it seems to have been conditioned, or prepared for, by its creator’s previous formal breakthroughs.”

Update, 10/21: For Mike D’Angelo, writing at the Dissolve, Life of Riley is Resnais’s “weakest effort in many years, though the blame lies less with Resnais’s direction than with his choice of material. Where You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet added layers of meta-reflection to plays (by Jean Anouilh) that are terrific in their own right, Life of Riley struggles in vain to find cinematic value in one of Alan Ayckbourn’s lesser efforts.”

Updates, 10/23: “The acting is in an arch, measured style that seems to throw off the comic timing,” writes Farran Nehme in the New York Post. “But if this isn’t a grand finale…, it’s still an affectionate coda for a master.”

For those that found Resnais’s 2012 title You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet a bit too esoteric,” writes Ioncinema‘s Nicholas Bell, “Life of Riley is a sweeter, simpler antidote.”

Updates, 10/24: At, Glenn Kenny finds that “there’s no shortage of stimulating and maybe even confounding formal playfulness here. And it’s not there to leaven the subject matter; it’s integrally folded in, to suggest that matters of both life and death are best approached with a light touch…. Life of Riley doesn’t play like a deliberate or self-conscious ‘last’ film, its suitably elegiac final images notwithstanding. It doesn’t rage against the dying of the light because its creator’s imaginative light is burning bright throughout. The near-featherweight insouciance is part of the magic of Life of Riley: its sub-theme could be the bearable (and perhaps necessary) lightness of aging gracefully. What a way to go. If you have to go, and we all do.”

Life of Riley “is the product of severely eclectic tastes, a clash of textures and styles that are only related by the fact that Resnais liked them,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. The comics, the theater, the MIDI score and so on. “As with many of the director’s later films, there appears to be no premeditated framework—only the framework that forms organically from the interaction of disparate elements and references…. While it doesn’t equal its predecessor or either of Resnais’ previous Ayckbourn adaptations—the 1993’s two-part Smoking/No Smoking and 2006’s Private Fears in Public Places—it still stands as a perfect example of the kind of unfashionable adventurousness Resnais embodied in the final decades of his career. It is a small movie, often moving, sometimes deliberately silly, and always reckless in its disregard for convention.”

At the Talkhouse Film, Tom Kalin writes that “when screenwriter Howard Rodman and I were working together on Savage Grace, we often turned to Resnais as a window into the energies of the ’60s.” As for Life of Riley, it’s “gorgeously absurd.”

Update, 10/25: “To Resnais contemporary Jacques Rivette, the theater was a conspiracy chamber, access to which only made life more mysterious,” writes Michael Atkinson in the Voice. “For Resnais, in the second half of his enormous career, it became a grand game, at once completely natural and completely artificial.”

Update, 12/14: Life of Riley “is at once a feathery-light sex farce and a histrionic gloss of a dying friend’s final days,” writes Oklahoma City Museum of Art film curator Michael J. Anderson. “Another easy, if intentionally awkward entertainment from a filmmaker who first made his name, in part, with the ironic and iconic Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955), nearly six decades before, Resnais’s latest and last is also an aggressive piece of anti-cinema, an overtly theatrical modernist exercise that seeks to destroy any vestige of traditional motion-picture illusionism. Life of Riley, in other words, is built to highlight its own artifice, to remind viewers, at every turn, that they are not observing life caught unawares, but instead a construction, of actors, delivering written lines, in unreal places. Maintaining the mid-century modernist faith to the very end, Resnais leaves us with a work of art that doesn’t pretend to be life, but instead proudly announces its status as a collaboratively constructed aesthetic object.”

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