Something of a spiritual companion piece to his penultimate masterpiece You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, French master filmmaker Alain Resnais’s final film (he died shortly after having completed it), Life of Riley continues his fascination with theatricality on the screen in both form and style, and as with the earlier film, combines large helpings of touching drama and warm hilarity to great effect, all while, again, addressing the subject of imminent and approaching death.
The plot of the film concerns three couples who learn of the impending death of their friend, the titular George Riley – who is never seen throughout the film and only referred to – while they participate in a community play. Together they face issues arising from the news, particularly in their own relationships as the women all vie for George’s attention in his remaining days (he is we gather something of a ladies man).
With its deliberately stagey sets (the buildings are all artificial backdrops), confined action and screenplay which intelligently incorporates the play-within-a-play format, it is not a film that many filmmakers could make and get right. The reason why it works as perfectly as it does here though – as with the previous film and other form-bending work, such as Lars Von Trier’s similar Dogville – is because it was made by a master, who even at the age of 91, was at the top of his game and demonstrated more wit, creativity and originality than a dozen filmmakers half of his age combined. Resnais’s sense of balance and tone in his films, these two in particular, is like few others. Even the compositions and staging of the action is explicitly cinematic despite the confines of the stage sets themselves.
While it’s an undeniable tragedy that there will never be another Resnais film, Life of Riley is a poignant high note to go out on after an already incredible career. While some will undoubtedly be put off by his style, those that embrace it wholeheartedly will be in for one of cinema’s great experiences.
Life of Riley is screening as part of the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival on Monday 4 August and Sunday 10 August.