Thursday, 21 May 2015

life of riley

life of riley is a french film based on an alan ayckbourn play set in yorkshire. if that sounds odd, it’s actually only the first of a number of unique and interesting things about this film.

the film follows two middle-aged couples in the process of rehearsing a play for their amateur theatre group. everything changes when they discover their friend, george riley, is dying from a terminal illness and only has six months to live. to help take his mind off the situation they invite george to be in the play but his presence soon starts to tear their relationships and friendships apart.

director alain resnais employs a number of interesting stylistic techniques to tell the story in what would unfortunately become his final film. the film opens with the camera moving through real yorkshire locations, and he uses this device to link the scenes together throughout the film. however, when we actually go into the scenes the locations are marked by a cartoon drawing of whichever house we’re going into. the locations themselves are deliberately made to appear like stage sets, with the backdrops made to look like curtains that the actors move in and out of when they enter or exit the scene. as you would expect from a film that has taken so many elements from theatre, many of the scenes are filmed in long takes, and resnais does some really interesting things with the camera during these takes. however, when one of the characters has a monologue or a particularly emotional moment resnais not only cuts to a close-up, he replaces the background with a monochrome, cross-hatched backdrop that takes us out of the scene but really emphasises the actor’s performance at the same time.

with so many alienating and sometimes distracting techniques at play, you would expect life of riley to be a confusing mess. however, resnais’ methods are all suggested by the playful nature of the source material. ayckbourn’s play has it’s own stylistic touches, such as the fact that the title character never appears onstage, or the fact that the play the characters are rehearsing is another ayckbourn play. resnais’ interpretation of the play seems like a perfect extension of the themes and ideas ayckbourn established, because resnais seems to have been really inspired by the source material rather than restricted by it.

somehow, all these disparate and distracting elements come together to form a story that really works. despite the actors being french and the locations looking like stage sets, i never doubted that we were in rural yorkshire. the characters really come to life, mostly thanks to some excellent performances from the veteran cast, and it’s impossible not to become engaged in the story, even when it seems like resnais is doing all he can to distance you from it. this is a film that takes some real risks, but for the most part, those risks pay off.

the only thing i’m not sure about is the animatronic mole. i didn’t quite get that part.

ultimately what holds this film together is the story of four people who need their lives to be shaken up, and that shake up comes in the form of the imminent death of their friend. relationships are tested, secrets are revealed but in the end, and as is fitting for a film structured around the performance of a play, the show must go on.

i’ve seen a few films based on stage plays, and usually my criticism is that they felt too much like plays, in that not enough has been done to adapt the material. resnais avoids this by embracing the medium and making use of the best of both worlds. somehow this works, and it’s worth seeing the film just to see how resnais pulls this off.

eureka entertainment will be releasing life of riley on blu-ray and dvd in a dual format edition as part of the masters of cinema series on 25th may 2015

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