Life of Riley review

Life of Riley sees renowned French director Alain Resnais, who sadly passed away last year, returning for one last time to the work of playwright Alan Ayckbourn. The resulting film shows just how much he was still experimenting in his old age, albeit with unsatisfying results.

Ayckbourn and Resnais’ engage with ideas of artificiality and a self-reflexive playfulness, but their conceits quickly set about consuming the film. They open with an introduction to the film’s setting, which is the UK city of York, and a few of the film’s players, all of whom are currently rehearsing for a play – revealed to be a previous work by Ayckbourn, in fact. All the cast peak French, despite the setting, and wander around on what are very clearly sets, including two-dimensional props and long, hanging sheets of plastic that separate a section from the back of each set.

There’s also an animatronic mole, for reasons that are never entirely clear.

In addition to this, Resnais and cinematographer Dominique Bouilleret have designed many of their shots in a rather matter-of-fact manner, and often frame the action straight on. There is a definite and obvious fourth wall being built by their shot choices. The only exception to this is when the film cuts to a close-up of a character monologuing in front of a green-screened backdrop image of black and white, hand-drawn, cross-hatched illustration.

The transitions between locations also emphasise the artificiality somewhat, with interstitial shots of roads followed by drawings of the locations that we are supposedly about to see. It’s a rich mix of ideas and unusual approaches but it’s hard to see any of them connecting with the material, and none seem to lead to any meaningful end result.

And the story itself is not particularly heady, offering little more than eight main characters fretting about their play and the impending death of George Riley, a character who is never seen but constantly discussed. Their conversations, squabbles and revelations lack dramatic weight, which would seem to confirm that Resnais was shooting for comedy, but when it comes to actually eliciting laughs, Life of Riley comes up lacking.

There is perhaps some wicked amusement to be had from some of the film’s final moments, and the story does finally get around to at least paying lip service to it’s central idea that ‘life is not a rehearsal,’ but it comes far too late.

This all appears to have been motivated by a great deal of self-reflection, but Resnais or Ayckbourn have unfortunately failed to make their navels look at all attractive to us in the audience.

Life of Riley is playing in UK cinemas now.