Film review – Aimer, Boire et Chanter / Life of Riley (Alain Resnais, 2014)

I remember sitting in the Olympic Stadium back in 2012, as British sporting darling Jessica Ennis stepped up to take part in another leg of her gold medal winning heptathlon events. It was a fantastic day of British sporting achievement, one which we’ve come to know as Super Saturday. Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford picked up a gold medal each that day, whilst the rest up Britain picked up a slice of happiness. Finally it was good to be British again. We could be proud to be British. We were all preparing to eat some fish and chips, put up the bunting and play some wiff-waff. But then we realised. Something odd was happening. The public announcements. They were unusual. They were being provided in two languages. One was British-English, the best kind of English. But, wait… Is that French? BEFORE OUR LANGUAGE!? Very quickly we had forgotten how great it was to be British and taken up our normal stance of complaining about something. How very dare they? [1]

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Life of Riley failed to ignite the British public’s interest when it was released back in 2014. The screenplay, provided by Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval (a pseudonym for Alain Resnais) and playwright Jean-Marie Besset, follows closely the original Alan Ayckbourn play on which it is based. Ayckbourn is a quintessentially British playwright, the voice of the suburban British middle class. When the film opens and we see a car slowly drifting along a country road towards the heart of Yorkshire, we know where we stand. But then we get slapped in the face again. Why is everyone speaking in French? [2]

Of course, the more discerning amongst the cinema-goers – to which this film is primarily aimed – will see beyond this thin veneer and find quite a rewarding film. The cast provide a lot of depth to the plot, and bring it to life through some highly comedic performances, despite it constantly living in danger of slowing down slightly too much. It does fall short on a few occasions, with the pacing at fault for the lulls.

It centres around an off-screen character named George Riley, who we learn early on is dying of cancer. With months to live, the people central to his life decide it would be a good idea to have him join them in their local theatre production of another Ayckbourn play, Relatively Speaking. Those people consist of three couples: diagnosing doctor Colin and his wife Kathryn (Hippolyte Girardot and Sabine Azéma); George’s best friend Jack and his wife Tamara (Michel Vuillermoz and Caroline Silhol); and George’s ex-wife Monica and her new partner Simeon (Sandrine Kiberlain and André Dussollier). Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi briefly appears as Tilly, daughter of Kathryn and Colin, in a moving final scene of the film. Most of the humour derives from the fact that our unseen titular character is evidently somewhat of a charmer and as the play continues forward and his clock is ticking down, they struggle to court his affections in increasingly desperate ways, resulting in a playoff as he decides who he takes on his final holiday to Tenerife, much to the disdain of their respective partners.

The distinctive set design is complimented by Dominique Bouilleret’s cinematography and essentially the setting of Yorkshire could have been dropped altogether. The film has the look and feel entirely of watching a play, but I did wonder whether or not it could have achieved something more given the capabilities of film as a medium over theatre.

The film premiered in competition at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, in what would prove to be three weeks prior to the death of director Resnais. Thus, Life of Riley proved to be his swansong. I’m not convinced it would have been his first choice of film to tell at the end of his life, but it certainly doesn’t allow his career to finish on a low note. It is somewhat fitting that it would be a final return to Ayckbourn, having already adapted two other plays. It isn’t life-changing, but it is certainly not to be dismissed.

Life of Riley is available on Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD now.

[1] Dare they might, and justifiably so. French is the first language of the Olympic movement, based in the French-speaking city of Lausanne.

[2] I find this hilarious, by the way. I would like to apologise to the entire world for every single time an English or American film has decided to cast someone who can’t speak the language of the character they are portraying and asked them to speak in English with an invariably hammy accent. It’s a massive embarrassment. I still have no idea why studios are so reluctant to cast native speakers in big roles. The entire illusion of a film is lost on me when you can’t even have someone speak in the correct language.

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