Life of Riley: an imaginative finale from a master modernist

Brighter in tone and texture than his earlier work, the last film from Alain Resnais deals with ageing and mortality with the lightest touch.

6 March 2015

By Geoff Andrew

Life of Riley (2014)

Too often, people have very fixed ideas about age and creativity. It’s often assumed that artists – and we are, of course, speaking primarily about filmmakers here – become less productive as they get older. But look at how certain directors have tended to speed up in later years; think of Robert Altman or Clint Eastwood – not to mention Manoel De Oliveira, who was still churning them out as he approached his century, and hasn’t entirely stopped even now at the age of 106.

A great many filmmakers simply want to carry on making films until they keel over, and if health permits they do precisely that. But prejudices run deep, and a common response to this is that even those who do continue creating beyond the usual retirement age tend to become tamer versions of their younger selves. The argument goes that, while the years of experience may have provided wisdom (itself as much of a stereotype as the aforementioned one of unproductive dotage), they also bring about a mellowing – or in other words, it’s implied, a diminishing of ambition, audacity and originality. Hence the hallowed if misguidedly ‘generous’ notion of the ‘autumnal masterpiece’.

Life of Riley (2014)

Before you complain that I protest too much, consider the following movies: Haneke’s Amour, Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley (not to mention all his subsequent films) or going further back in time, Dreyer’s Gertrud, Ford’s 7 Women, Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Fuller’s White Dog, Bresson’s L’Argent and Chahine’s Destiny. All the directors were in their seventies when they made these far from tame or mellow films. Or think of Huston’s The Dead, Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke and Triple Agent, Bergman’s Saraband, and the Tavianis’ Caesar Must Die, all made when the directors were into their eighties. My point is not just that many filmmakers in their eighth and ninth decades continue to make remarkably fine films; it’s that some of them remain as imaginative, inventive and interested in making work that’s genuinely fresh, relevant and challenging – both to themselves and to their audiences – as they were in earlier years.

This phenomenon of the physically aged but creatively ageless artist was applauded and rewarded at all three of the big European festivals last year. In Cannes, Jean-Luc Godard (83) won the Jury Prize with his characteristically experimental Goodbye to Language 3D (2014). (Quite how the seemingly eternal enfant terrible felt about sharing the honour with Xavier Dolan, a 25-year-old whose Mommy (2014) was already his fifth feature, remains unknown.) In Venice, Roy Andersson (71) won the Golden Lion with his characteristically idiosyncratic A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014). And in Berlin, Alain Resnais (then 91 – he died just a couple of weeks later) won both a Silver Bear ‘for opening new perspectives in cinema’ and the FIPRESCI international critics’ prize for the characteristically modernist and playful Life of Riley. 

Life of Riley (2014)

Though Resnais’ film, like its predecessor You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012), deals with the themes of ageing and mortality, it does so with the lightest touch. Whereas the earlier film was adapted from a couple of plays by Jean Anouilh, his swansong was an in many regards faithful adaptation of a play by Alan Ayckbourn, an old friend of the director whose work had already been made it to the big screen as the Smoking/No Smoking (1993) diptych and as Private Fears in Public Places (2006).  

Actually, swansong is not quite the right word here; despite the film’s focus on how various people respond to the news of a friend’s imminent and premature death, there is nothing remotely funereal or lugubrious about what just happened to be Resnais’s final work. Indeed, the film is noticeably brighter in tone and texture than such early works as Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Last Year in Marienbad (1961) or Muriel (1963), not to mention, of course, his shattering Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955). But like all those films, Life of Riley is notable for its experiments with form. 

Life of Riley (2014)

Don’t let the film’s theatrical origins foil you into thinking Resnais simply made a filmed record of Ayckbourn’s play. Though he never made a secret of the literary and theatrical aspects of his work – he did, after all, work with Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, David Mercer, Jean Gruault and Jorge Semprún, among others – his films were never anything but fully cinematic, and his last is par for the course. 

Though the play is set in Yorkshire, the film is set in a Yorkshire of the mind – or, rather, a Yorkshire of a French mind. It’s a charmingly strange, even surreal place, assembled from stylised sets, cartoons (Resnais was a big fan of bandes dessinées) and shots of country roads taken from a car; a Yorkshire where everyone happily speaks in French all the time, to boot. A place, in other words, that is cinematically compiled from various unrelated components. Now that, of course, is true of any place we see in a movie; film environments are always to some extent artificial constructs created by choice of location, camera position, casting and cutting. But Resnais, a modernist through and through, enjoyed playing up the artifice, making it more explicit, inviting us to think a little about a film’s relation to ‘reality’. And he did that – wittily, mischievously and in his own quiet way quite gloriously – to the very end.

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