I’ve recently been listening to DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. If you’ve not come across it (I hadn’t until recently) it’s a combo of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album, from which all the music is taken. It’s a startling idea, and the result no less so, but predominantly because it works so well, challenging all your expectations and, dare I say it, prejudices. The problem with it, at least on the first couple of listens, is that you spend so much time marvelling on how well it works and how clever it is that you miss the music as music. So the first exposure is a bit disorienting… Life of Riley is very similar, but I’ll come back to this.
There are two basic questions that any review needs to answer: 1. Is it any good? And 2. Will I enjoy it? Well the answer to the first is “oh yes, it’s extremely good”. The answer to the second is a slightly more reserved “well, yes, if you like this sort of thing.”
Resnais is not your ordinary filmmaker. As a warm-up to doing this review I watched “Last Year at Marienbad”, a bizarre but beautiful work of his from the early 60’s, concerning a couple who may, or may not, have had a brief affair a year previous and the attempt by the man, when they (and the husband) are thrown together at a social gathering, to get the woman to accept that it happened, to acknowledge their love. Simple enough; but the editing and jigsawing of the story (both in the supposed “now” and the disputed “then”) give it a dream-like, disorientating atmosphere, which is accelerated by the manner in which the film is shot (in beautiful, hypnotic, often static, almost 3-dimensional black and white) and the nature of the performances, which seem almost deliberately eccentric. This is an “art film” (whatever that means, and if it means anything, Resnais is one of those few directors who deserve that term) something you are never allowed to forget, but its “arty-ness” is employed in a manner which adds a substance that is difficult to describe. Perhaps it is simply that one is given time to absorb what one is seeing and through that absorption to “feel” what is happening, which seems rare these days. Unless you’re at the theatre.
“Life of Riley” is similar. Made 50 years after “Marienbad”, Resnais’ film (his last before his death) still flies the “art film” banner proudly, despite its deceptively simple plot, which, when first read, might give the unwary the impression that you’ve seen its like before. You haven’t and for that reason alone it’s worth watching.
Three middle-aged couples, living quietly in Yorkshire, who, upon hearing the devastating news of the imminent death of a close friend, come up with an ingenious plan to cheer him up; they will involve him in their amateur dramatics production. This kicks off a series of events which gives them cause to look back over their lives, the choices they have made and to contemplate what lies ahead.
So it’s a film about a bunch of people making theatre (or trying to). The script is an adaptation of an Alan Aykbourn play, i.e. theatre about theatre. Resnais film uses that as an excuse to employ theatrical technique and the result is a film which is partly about film and theatre. The locations are theatre sets and a great deal of the time it is shot as though the action were taking place on a stage. And then suddenly it won’t be. Resnais does things that are impossible on stage, just occasionally, to remind you that you are watching a film. Cuts and transitions during scenes, and a particular way of filming character monologues remind you that what you are watching is artifice, like, of course, much of what is happening in these peoples’ lives. Which is really what the film is about.
The problem with reviewing this film is that it quickly starts to sound like a Mike Leigh film on crack, but that’s unfair to both Leigh and Resnais (and probably to crack, but I’m not really qualified to judge, we’d have to get one of George Osborne’s friends to offer an opinion).
Despite its locale it is a resoundingly French film and, which I love about it more than anything, it abandons “realism” for “truth”. Phew! Resnais rehearsed his actors theatre style and it shows; the acting has a physical, almost clowning, style, which is rarely, if ever, seen on film or TV these days, and is superb, which isn’t really surprising when you consider the pedigree of the actors, and because the plot is so straightforward and the film allows you time to notice, you have an opportunity (notwithstanding a caveat I’m about to introduce) to revel in the complexity of these great performances. The direction, which often feels more like choreography, is subtle and magnificent. The film is a riot of colours, mostly provided from painted backdrops which shift in colour as the story moves through the seasons, and Mark Snow’s score manages to be both exactly what you expect and thoroughly unexpected at the same time.
Which brings me to the first of the film’s challenges. The first time I watched it I spent as much time enjoying, but also struggling with, how clever it is as much as I did actually enjoying the film, just like the Grey Album. I tried to stop doing this when I noticed I was doing it but it was tricky, just because the film was so extraordinary. So I found I had to watch it twice; but then I had to do that anyway because I hit a problem that I suspect will affect all non-French speakers – the subtitles. It’s a film based on a play, so there’s a lot of words. And it’s adapted from an Alan Aykbourn play, so it’s worth reading the words because they are very funny. But all that reading is very hard work, especially when you’re already marvelling at how clever the whole is. So my immediate problem was that I knew I was going to have to watch it again – which I also knew wasn’t going to be a problem, rather like enjoying the ingredients of a magnificent cake, knowing that you’re going to get to eat it again.
The only thing that did bug me about that was that it meant I was going to have to contemplate the title again. The play on which the film is based is called “The Life of Riley”, because the name of the friend is George Riley, but the film’s French title is “Aimer, Boire et Chanter”, which is then translated back into “Life of Riley” for the English language release. I’m being overly pernickety, but that annoyed me, twice. It made me worry too much about how close an adaptation this was of the play, which, on top of everything else, I would rather not have been thinking about. But perhaps that’s just me. In fact I’m being very pernickety, deliberately, because I’m trying to find things to criticise about the film – all in the name of balance and so forth – but that’s actually quite hard to do. Because having emerged from the confusion of the Grey Album-esque experimentation, what you are presented with is an innovative, warm expression of basic human feelings that strikes you precisely as it is intended to. There is no “method acting”, thee are no robots, no aliens, no superheroes, no Nazis, no room full of sex toys (not that I necessarily have a problem with any of those things) just people, the play they are putting on and their history as friends, presented in a way that steals the best bits of theatre aesthetics and the best bits of film technique and puts them together. And that’s enough; twice, and beyond.
I highly recommend that you watch this film. See it. Laugh, cry and revel in how clever you are for enjoying it. You might find you need to watch it again, but that’s no hardship. And he’s not making any more, so you might as well take the opportunity of enjoying this one. Even if you don’t normally like “this sort of thing”.
Watch it eating cake..!!
Cast: Sabine Azema, Hippolyte Girardot, Caroline Silhol, Michel Vuillermoz, Sandrine Kiberlain, Andre Dussollier
Dvd Screener courtesy of Eureka Entertainment Ltd