Who Needs Realism?: A Review of ‘Life of Riley’

Posted in Blu-Ray/DVD, Movies by - March 10, 2015
Who Needs Realism?: A Review of ‘Life of Riley’

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It is always such a terribly pleasant thing when styles get mashed up and worlds collide for a result that is truly unique.  For his final bow in the realm of cinema, new wave auteur Alain Resnais’ Life of Riley is not what you’d expect.  An English farce, wrapped in French New Wave sensibilities which results in a lush and hysterically dry witted love letter to the art of acting and storytelling.

Life of Riley takes us to a terribly French version of the English countryside, where the life of three couples is shaken forever by a character these spouses’ simply can’t stop talking about;  one George Riley. When Dr. Colin (Hippolyte Girardot) accidentally tells his wife Kathryn (Sabine Azéma) that his patient George Riley does not have more than a few months to live, he has no idea that Riley was Kathryn’s first love. They find this out while rehearsing a play with their local amateur theatre company, and convince George to join them in an act of kindness to give me something to take his mind off of his terminal illness.  It gives George the chance to play in some heavy romantic scenes with Tamara (Caroline Sihol) who is married to Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) his best friend, a well to do businessman with a bad habit of cheating on his wife.  Devastated by the news of George’s illness, a tearful Jack tries to persuade Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), George’s wife who left him to be with Simeon (André Dussollier) the farmer, to go back to her husband in order to support him during his last months. In these his final days, George has a strange pull over all of these women as they are all want to find a certain degree of closure with him before he goes, which upsets their respective spouses to no end.  However, George has bigger issues on his mind before he passes away; which one of these women can he convince to go away with him on vacation one final time?

A romantic farce wrapped in New Wave sensibilities as he throws convention out the window and gives us a delightful story about confronting your mortality and living life to the fullest with what is right there in front of you.

Adapted from a play by Alan Ayckbourn, Resnais’ final effort is dripping with some of the driest wit you’ll ever find and some pure unadulterated joy.  Surrounding his actors in hyper colourful faux backdrops rather than actually sets, makes it all feel like a stage play unfolding before us and it sustains that energy surprisingly well.  He’s not trying to give us a reality, I mean throughout his entire career, he never actually gave a damn about things being real anyway and the fact that he goes out of his way to make it all feel fairly ridiculous takes us out the raw narrative of it all and lets us get swept up in the emotion of it all as we see these friends come together for their dying friend.  It plays with such an earnest sense of self, that the farcical nature of it all never gets to be too overwhelming it allows us to embrace this borderline day-glo world of drama and romance, it’s almost like a soap opera and a comic strip had a baby and it is glorious.

Life of Riley middle

With the convention of standard sets and even storyline development dropped into more of a theatre play like flow, we truly got to focus on the performances in this, which were quite good from top to bottom.  The ensemble played off of each beautifully and the structure of the narrative was such a masterful device as we see all three of these couples re-examine their own lives in relationships in the face of what is happening to their friend, and it never once gets maudlin.  If anything it unfolds in such a cuttingly dry way that we simply can’t stop smirking and all these couple get frustrated and mad at George we can’t help but wonder if this was his master plan all along the second he learned that he got sick.  It is all a beautiful metaphor for life as we need to hold on to what is dear and let go of the petty and inconsequential moments that we are all guilty of.

There really isn’t a much better way to end a career then with a movie like Life of Riley as it is just a joyous ode to what makes story telling great.  It doesn’t need to be real or overtly emotional, you just have to be as compelling as you possibly can and sell it hard for every second of screen time.  It is simple, stunning and beautiful cinema that shows what you can do with strong characters and a little bit of imagination.

Now on Blu-Ray, the picture and sound quality are top notch as the special features include a booklet with essays by Resnais and film critic Glen Kenny as well as interviews with the cast and the theatrical trailer.

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This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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