Discover Tuesdays

Discover Tuesdays: Life Of Riley 26/5

Margarita Georgitseas, Office Manager at Picturehouse HQ, takes an inside look at this week’s Discover Tuesdays title.

Alain Resnais’s last film before his death at 91, Life Of Riley is a playful glimpse into the lives of three bourgeois couples who are shocked to discover that their mutual friend, George Riley, is dying of cancer. Like the similarly eponymous Godot, Riley himself never appears, but his impending death throws his friends into emotional turmoil as the three women are increasingly drawn to him and away from their husbands.

For this film Resnais collaborated with English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, adapting his 2010 stage play into a French screenplay while keeping the theatrical staging and Yorkshire setting. The result is an uncanny experience in which spirited French performances are only semi-incorporated into stylised English set pieces.

Life Of Riley was Resnais’s third collaboration with Ayckbourn, although the French auteur had been experimenting with stage-to-screen adaptations for 30-odd years. His fascination with the stage is reflected in the film’s playfulness: he mixes painted-curtain and cardboard sets with mobile shots of the Yorkshire countryside and colourful drawings to mark scene changes, resulting in a film that is neither pure theatre nor pure cinema.

The uncanniness is heightened by added layers of theatricality, as the three couples, rehearsing for an upcoming play, frequently become confused about whether the drama of a given moment is genuine or scripted. “It goes back and forth from theatre to film,” Resnais explained. “I’d like to try to achieve what Raymond Queneau called in Saint-Glinglin ‘la brouchecoutaille’, a sort of ratatouille, by breaking down the walls between film and theatre and thus ending up totally free… I still get a kick out of bringing together things that shouldn’t meet.”

Resnais, who is best known for his involvement with the French new wave, was always interested in film form, and his final work is no exception. The simple staging of Life Of Riley brings a heightened awareness to every rare pan, reverse shot and close-up. The sparse camerawork also showcases delightful performances by Sabine Azéma, Hippolyte Girardot and Michel Vuillermoz, actors who worked regularly with Resnais throughout his illustrious career.

At the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, Life Of Riley was awarded the Silver Bear for ‘a feature film that opens new perspectives’. Yet despite its intellectual execution, surrealist touches and melancholy themes, Life Of Riley is light-hearted, good-humoured and often downright funny. A fitting final film, the script responds to the looming question of Riley’s impending death by celebrating life in all its ordinariness.

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